WASHINGTON (AP) — In his first public appearance since several women said he had behaved physically inappropriately, former Vice President Joe Biden on Friday made light of his tendency to be affectionate while delivering a nostalgia-drenched speech aimed at winning back the white, blue collar workers who backed Trump in 2016.
He criticized the president as “locked in the past.” But Biden, 76, evoked his own youth and even the life of his father in his speech to members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Biden recounted a time when he said the dignity of teachers, sanitation and electrical line workers was treasured and the nation felt it had a common purpose. Saying his father, a salesman, told him to respect everyone, Biden alluded to various “sophisticated friends” who don’t get the significance of treating blue-collar laborers as equals.”
“All you’re looking for is to be treated fairly, with respect, with some dignity,” Biden said. “Because you matter.”
Biden also seemed to take on his own party by noting he’d gotten criticism from the left for saying Democrats had to work with Republicans to get things done, and in defending President Obama’s signature law, the Affordable Care Act, which some Democratic presidential aspirants want to replace with a single-payer system.
“We need to build on it,” Biden said of the law. “What we can’t do is blow it up.”
In a humorous yet pointed reference to his own current controversy, at the beginning of the 40-minute speech the former vice president embraced Lonnie Stephenson, the male president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He told his audience: “I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie.”
The quip on was met with cheers from the largely male audience that represented the sort of blue-collar white workers Biden’s supporters hope he can win back from Trump.
Biden was alluding to a controversy that began last week as he gears up for a presidential run. Nevada politician Lucy Flores said she was uncomfortable when Biden kissed her on the back of the head backstage at a 2014 campaign event. Her account was countered by scores of women — from prominent lawmakers to former Biden staffers — who praised him as a warm, affectionate person and a supportive boss. But several other women have also come forward to recount their own awkward interactions with Biden.
He said in a cellphone video released Wednesday that he understood “social norms have begun to change” and “the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset.”
Biden allies insist the eruption has done little to slow down planning for a 2020 campaign. Barring the unforeseen, he is expected to announce his candidacy, perhaps online, after Easter and immediately embark on a trip to early voting caucus and primary states. Those stops would be followed by a ceremonial kickoff.
Advisers say they are working to build out a robust campaign staff, including operatives in Iowa and South Carolina, states that are seen as key to his path to the nomination. Women are being considered for key roles, including senior strategist and deputy campaign manager, according to advisers, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the planning publicly.
Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, has long been one of his most trusted political confidantes. His daughter, 37-year-old Ashley Biden, who has largely kept a low profile during his political career, may also take on a more prominent role. She has quit her job as a social worker, fueling speculation.
But the past few weeks have laid bare the challenges Biden would face. Some women’s groups have balked at his attempts to apologize for his role overseeing the Senate hearings in which Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
Trump has joined the criticism, despite his own history with more than a dozen women who have accused him of improper sexual acts. Trump has denied those allegations, and on Thursday he posted a doctored version of Biden’s video. In Trump’s version, a Biden avatar approaches Biden from behind and appears to grab his shoulders.
“Yeah, I think I’m a very good messenger and people got a kick out of it,” Trump told reporters Friday.
Reacting in a glimpse of what may lie ahead in the 2020 campaign, Biden tweeted back at Trump, “I see that you are on the job and presidential, as always.”
As the scrutiny has intensified, Biden has kept the counsel of a small group of advisers who have been with him for years. The team appeared to respond slowly to Flores’ assertions, first releasing a brief statement from a spokesman, then a longer statement from Biden himself about 36 hours later. Four more days passed before the former vice president’s video response was released.
“It is a really difficult period before you announce when you are nonetheless a target,” said David Axelrod, a longtime political adviser to President Barack Obama. “You’re not wholly in a position to respond and yet you have to, and so that may account for the halting way in which this unfolded.”