WILMINGTON, Del. — With the tone, verve and rhetoric of a presidential candidate, Joe Biden led a discussion at the University of Delaware on Monday touching on themes of political divisiveness, a struggling middle class and “demagogues” sparking fear of the unknown.
The former vice president then addressed what many among the Delaware audience had thought — or hoped — he might: His presidential ambitions.
Biden said he has not yet decided whether to run for president, though he is close.
He revealed in detail how his family has expressed their backing of a potential presidential run, but he must decide “whether or not I am comfortable taking the family through a very, very, very difficult campaign.”
“The General Election, running against President Trump, I don’t think he’s likely to stop at anything,” Biden said to a capacity crowd of 700 at the University of Delaware.
The longtime Delaware senator also said he has yet to decide whether he would be able to attract enough individual contributions to mount a campaign, whether support he sees in the public runs deep enough to lead to a victory, and how he may deploy resources onto social media platforms in what would be a “massive undertaking.”
“I don’t want this to be a fool’s errand,” he said. “This alleged appeal that I have. How deep does it run? Is it real?”
At one point, a woman in the crowd yelled, “Oh, god, just say ‘yes.'” Answering in a style that has become part of his political identity, Biden said he always means what he says.
“The problem is I sometimes say all that I mean,” he said. “That’s as straight forward as I can be. I have not made the final decision.”
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The comments had been prodded out of Biden by author Jon Meacham who was on stage with the former vice president at a UD conference hall to discuss his book, published last year, called “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”
It was the first ever event held at the newly named Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration.
In an opening statement, Biden recalled advice he had received more than three decades ago from a former professor about running for elected office.
“He said remember what Plato said,” Biden recalled. “The penalty that good people pay for not being involved in politics is being governed by people worse than themselves.”
The significance of the comment from a potential presidential contender was not lost on the crowd, or on Meacham.
After Biden completed the opening remarks, the author turned to him and said, “I want to go back that Plato thing.”
“Does that have any resonance for you” today?
Biden postponed his answer instead turning to Meacham’s book — a work about voters’ ability to survive and defeat “even the most divisive of presidents and the most depressing of eras,” as Meacham described it last year in a column for USA TODAY.
While the theme was a direct allusion to President Donald Trump, Meacham argued that political divisiveness today is not unknown to the United States.
“From Reconstruction to the first Red Scare under Woodrow Wilson, from the rise of a new Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century to the cataclysm of the 1930s, from Joe McCarthy to the backlash against civil rights, our national story is no fairy tale,” he said.
At UD on Tuesday, Meacham said he wrote the book in response to white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, there, and Trump’s response to it.
“There’s a struggle between our better angels and the clan,” he said.
Also lambasting the president’s response to Charlottesville, Biden said Trump created a moral equivalency between people “chanting the same anti-semitic bile that was chanted in the streets of Nuremberg in 1933,” and those who oppose them.
“Has any president since the Civil War said anything like that?” Biden asked Meacham.
“No,” the author and historian replied.
In the hours prior to the UD event, Biden made references that also appeared to indicate a distaste for Trump, who may become his opponent in the 2020 General Election.
Biden tweeted a photo of Meacham’s book opened to a page scribbled with notes and underlined sentences.
“A president’s vices and his virtues matter enormously,” proclaimed one underlined sentence on the page.
Follow Karl Baker on Twitter @kbaker6.