Formally launching his third presidential campaign, Joe Biden appealed for party and national unity while accusing Donald Trump of leading America with “a clenched fist, a closed hand and a hard heart”.
Biden appeared at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon, two days ahead of a Trump rally elsewhere in Pennsylvania, one of the states in which blue-collar swing voters delivered the White House to the Republican in 2016.
Introduced by his wife, Jill Biden, the former vice-president called on Democrats to eschew the politics of division and to “fight for, defend and earn democracy”.
“I know there are times when only a bare-knuckle fight will do,” he said. “I know we have to take on Republicans to do what’s right without any help from them.”
But, he said, “we are the United States of America and there is not a single thing we cannot do if we are together.”
“If the American people want a president to add to our division,” he said, “to lead with a clenched fist, closed hand and a hard heart, to demonise opponents and spew hatred – they don’t need me. They already have a president who does just that. I am running to offer our country – Democrats, Republicans and independents – a different path.”
Biden was a senator from Delaware for 36 years and vice-president to Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017. He was a relatively late entrant to the sprawling field seeking the Democratic nomination in 2020, which has now reached 23 candidates.
Biden has been criticised for his behaviour towards women, including his role in hearings into allegations of sexual harassment against the supreme court justice Clarence Thomas; for his congressional record on racial issues; and for a perceived lack of progressive policies and appeal.
The 76-year-old nonetheless has a handy lead in most primary polls, clear of prominent opponents including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.
In Philadelphia, Biden repeatedly appealed for party unity. It would, he said, stand counter to the divisive rhetoric of the Trump presidency.
“Some say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity,” Biden said. “That they are angry – and the angrier you are, the better. That’s what they are saying you have to do to win the Democratic nomination.
“Well, I don’t believe it. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation. That’s what we’ve always been about. Unity.”
He said he would not speak ill of any other Democratic candidate, although when a repetitive whistling sounded in the background to the rally, Biden joked: “That must be Bernie.”
In return, Trump has begun to attack Biden regularly, coining the nickname “SleepyCreepy Joe”. Four years younger than the former VP, at 72, the president has denied multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and assault.