WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Joe Biden vowed to address “institutional racism” in his first 100 days in office as he met with community leaders at a predominantly African American church in Delaware on Monday morning (June 1), leaving home for a second consecutive day to address exploding racial tensions that have begun to reshape the upcoming presidential election.
Biden, the former vice president who will represent Democrats on the ballot against President Donald Trump this fall, has struggled in recent weeks to be heard from his basement television studio over the noise of dueling national crises. But after another night of violent protests, the 77-year-old Democrat gathered with roughly a dozen local black leaders during an intimate meeting in his hometown ahead of a virtual meeting with mayors from Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Hate just hides. It doesn’t go away, and when you have somebody in power who breathes oxygen into the hate under the rocks, it comes out from under the rocks,” Biden said, his face mask lowered around his chin, after several participants shared their thoughts on police brutality.
If elected, he promised to “deal with institutional racism” and set up a police oversight body in his first 100 days in office.
His low-key, high-touch approach marked a sharp contrast to that of Trump in recent days, who has made little effort to unify the country. The Republican president was scheduled to speak to governors and law enforcement officials on Monday, but he spent much of the weekend using Twitter as a bullhorn to urge “law and order” and tougher action by police against protesters around the country. He warned Friday that, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Trump also lashed out at Biden on Monday, tweeting that “Sleepy Joe Biden’s people are so Radical Left that they are working to get the Anarchists out of jail, and probably more.”
In the early moments of Monday’s gathering at the Bethel AME church in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, the former vice president listened quietly and took notes in a spiral notebook. All of the attendees, including Biden, wore face masks.
“The vice president came to hear from us. This is a homeboy,” said Pastor Sylvester Beaman, before Biden and those present bowed their heads in prayer.
Biden’s softer approach may foreshadow how the presumptive Democratic nominee presents himself in the five months before the presidential election, emphasizing calm and competence as a contrast to a mercurial president. It is an approach that carries the risk of being drowned out by the much louder, more persistent voice of Trump.
“He’s not in office, and he certainly does not have the megaphone like the person currently occupying the White House does, but I do think our people are looking for someone who can make them feel better during these extremely tough times,” said Rep. Val Demings of Florida, whom Biden is considering as a running mate. “America just needs to be reassured that there’s someone who’s understanding, someone who’s willing to say, ‘Yes, we do have some issues,’ and someone who’s willing to address it.”
Reassurance requires presence, though, and that has been a hurdle for the former vice president, driven inside by the coronavirus pandemic, still working to adapt to the power of social media as a substitute and without the natural platform of a public office.
Biden delivered a well-received address on Friday calling on white people to shoulder the responsibility of ending America’s systemic racism. But he was largely out of sight over the weekend, which marked the fifth anniversary of the death of his son Beau Biden.
Monday marked just his third public appearance since the pandemic exploded in mid-March.
Biden and his wife, Jill, marked Memorial Day by laying a wreath at a veterans memorial near his Wilmington home last week, and the former vice president’s campaign posted pictures of him visiting a protest site in another part of the city on Sunday afternoon. Earlier, he wrote a post on Medium expressing empathy for those despairing about the police killing of George Floyd.
Biden’s standing with the black community weighs heavily as he works to deny Trump a second term. African Americans rescued Biden’s flailing primary campaign earlier in the spring, but it’s unclear if they will turn out for him in large number in November.
“I want to make something clear. I don’t expect anything from the black community,” he said Monday, insisting that he has never taken their support for granted.
The morning gathering featured 15 invited religious, political and educational leaders, including Delaware Democratic Rep. Blunt Rochester. They all wore masks and spaced out among the wooden pews. Pasted notices on the main entrance cautioned people from entering if they had a cough or other symptoms that could indicate they were suffering from coronavirus.
The speakers, including Biden, lowered their masks as they took turns speaking.
Much of Biden’s campaign strategy centers on trying to draw a contrast with Trump on temperament and values. He’s called the White House contest a battle for the soul of the nation and has been particularly forceful in condemning Trump’s handling of moments of racial tension.
Democrats believe the former vice president draws a contrast with Trump in such moments that works in his favor. They note that while Biden didn’t appear on television all weekend, he spoke about Floyd’s death before Trump addressed it and has shown compassion for the protesters. Trump has alternated between expressing alarm over Floyd’s death and sympathy for his family and issuing tweets antagonizing protesters and disparaging his political enemies.
And in an election that is likely to be a referendum on the sitting president, some Biden aides say privately that the best plan may be to let Trump do himself in.
Yet there is also a recognition that Biden needs to do more than simply wait for voters who may be turned off by Trump to turn toward him. And some Democrats who have criticized Biden in the past for not being more visible during the onset of the coronavirus said he is making the right moves now.
“I’m sure they have some reluctance, understandably, right now to politicize it. That’s not who he is,” said Democratic strategist James Carville. “There might be a time for eloquence, but I think that simplicity is eloquence right now.”
AP writer Steve Peoples in Montclair, New Jersey, contributed.
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