At the full (but not very big) Rex Theater in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, the crowd on Saturday that came to watch Vice President Joe Biden at one of his few campaign events was made up of Biden die-hards, a large collection of political tourists from outside the state, the usual undecided Granite State voters, and a sub-group of the not-made-a-choice-yet set: Biden fans looking for a reason to vote for the guy.
This bunch includes people who are drawn toward Biden and who want to vote for him but who are worried. They fret he may be past his prime and not up for the task of defeating Donald Trump. They are concerned they themselves are stuck in the past and ought to be moving ahead with one of the other choices. They just can’t get their heart (Joe!) and the head (uh, maybe not) together.
Prior to Biden’s arrival, a 50-something nurse from Nashua who didn’t want to share her name, described her state: “I feel a strange attraction to Joe. I’m trying to figure out if it’s just out of loyalty. Is it just because of Obama?” She noted that she was also considering billionaire Tom Steyer. (She had gone online to a site where voters can match their positions on policies with those of the candidates, and she lined up best with Steyer.) She noted that family members were trying to persuade her to kick Biden to the curb. Her relatives were pushing her to vote for either Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg. “Not a lot of overlap there,” I remarked. “Yeah,” she replied. “You should see my family.”
And there was another thing about Biden, she noted: “It feels so unfair what’s been done to him.” She was referring to Trump and the Republicans’ efforts to smear Biden and his son Hunter.
Inside the Rex—where the P.A. belted out The Who: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”—Teri, a local businesswoman, echoed that sentiment: “I like Joe. I feel he deserves its. And I feel so bad at what Bonzo”—her term for Trump—”is doing to him and his son.” But it was clear a “but” was coming: “But I want to see him more fired up.”
Biden has been, to be polite about it, an uneven performer as a campaigner. He was feistier than usual at the Democratic debate on Friday night. But voters at this event and others have constantly said they’d like to see more out of the veteran Democrat. And watching Biden these days is like watching a fellow on a tightrope. His sentences often appear to be heading toward strong and crucial points. Yet too often they get lost on the way. My hunch is that New Hampshire residents looking to be Biden voters want to witness a clearer and more powerful Joe. They’re craving that one thing that will push them over the line into a true commitment.
At the Rex, Biden delivered as much as he has done to date. Occasionally glancing at the TelePrompter—he was not leaving this crucial appearance to chance—Biden presented a coherent and passionate speech to folks who largely did seem excited to be in his presence. He slammed Trump for caging kids, for embracing and exploiting hatred, for bowing down to Putin, for serving a “dark angry nation”: “I don’t think he possesses any empathy.” He even went populist: “This country wasn’t built by Wall Street… It was built by the middle class… Unions built the middle class.”
And Biden struck at Buttigieg, asserting this was “no time for on-the-job training.” Noting that Buttigieg has portrayed Biden as part of “failed Washington,” Biden asked what was so failing about passing Obamacare, reaching the Iran deal, saving the auto industry, or passing the stimulus bill that helped rescue a collapsing economy—accomplishments that he took credit for, in some cases more legitimately than others. (Biden did stumble over the word “Iran” and mangled a description of the deal, and many in the audience appeared to hold their breath, perhaps wondering if this would be the flub that finishes him. But the candidate recovered and pressed onward.)
Biden’s slap on Buttigieg was in sync with a snarky but cutting video released by his campaign that morning that contrasted Biden working on Obamacare and dealing with global leaders on the Iran deal to Buttigieg revamping sidewalks and putting new lights on a river walk. “We’re a party at risk if we nominate someone who hasn’t held an office higher than mayor” of a small city, Biden bellowed.
Biden also repeated his criticism of Sanders for not being able to provide a cost estimate for his Medicare for All proposal and for Sanders’ past votes to protect the gun industry. And he contended that having a self-proclaimed democratic socialist on the top of the ticket will be a disaster for Democrats running for other offices.
Biden was fierce. He declared that Trump’s decision to award the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh demonstrated that Trump “doesn’t understand America or deserve to be be its president.” In earnest fashion, Biden told the crowd that he cares about the challenges they face in their lives, reminding them that he, too, has experienced great losses. And he added, “I’m going to be damned if I’m going to stand by and lose my country, too. Not going to let it happen.” The crowd cheered.
It was Biden (the 2020 model) at his best. The blood transfusion worked. (Note to readers: Biden did not really get a blood transfusion—at least not that we know.) Several people walking out of the theater shared an observation: if only he had done that at the debate. Maybe that would have been worth a few points. It certainly was a performance that could provide Biden leaners cause to shed inhibitions and finally accept Biden as their man.
Yet as cynical reporters discussed among themselves, was this—warning: cliche ahead—too little, too late? Anyone can take a guess. The interesting question is whether Biden can continue to campaign in this coherent and robust fashion—and whether after the vote in New Hampshire he will still have the chance to do so as a contender.