With Vice President Joe Biden expected to decide soon on a presidential bid, his supporters may see a path to the nomination against front-runner Hillary Clinton.
But when it comes issues that are key to progressives, Biden might find even tougher challenges than Clinton has faced.
Top on that list: The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord that was just finalized – which Biden lobbied Democratic lawmakers to support.
Though Clinton’s taken fire for refusing to weigh in on TPP, Biden was a key surrogate for the Obama Administration in their effort to build support on Capitol Hill.
Clinton has also disavowed the controversial tough-on-crime policies her husband signed into law in the 1990s and has faced scrutiny for her ties to Wall Street.
But Biden was one of the chief architects of that very crime bill that Clinton has distanced herself from. And he’s come under fire before for his support for the financial services industry, which makes up a sizable portion of the economy in his home state of Delaware.
Progressives are warning that the Vice President, if he does enter the race, would have work to do to move past some of these issues on his record.
“He has a mixed record,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the progressive group Democracy for America. Sroka ticked off Biden’s ties to banking, his vote for the Iraq War and his record on criminal justice reform as a few examples.
“There are a lot of places where I think we’d need to hear more about how all of the candidates have evolved over time and would need a real demonstration, not just about how they’ve evolved but a commitment to enact more progressive, populist policies in the White House,” Sroka added.
His record, at best, would blunt a handful of otherwise potent attacks on Clinton’s in a primary contest.
At worst, it could turn off wide swaths of the Democratic electorate where Biden would need substantial support to win a primary: Progressives, union workers and African American voters.
For progressives, Biden would have to confront his ties to the financial services industry, which made up a sizable portion of Delaware’s economy during his time as senator, and contributed a significant amount to his campaign warchest over his career. In particular, progressives flagged his support for a reform bill, pushed by the financial services industry in the late 1990s, that made it more difficult for consumers to declare bankruptcy.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a darling of the progressive left, fingered him as one of the bill’s “lead sponsors” in her book, and attacked him as anti-women for his support in a 2002 letter to the New York Times.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a progressive group that helped lead the charge to draft Warren into the race, said Biden will need to work harder to convince progressives he’ll stand up for their priorities.
"As with Clinton, Biden's support of the credit card industry in the bankruptcy debate would increase his burden to show voters he will challenge the power of big financial interests,” he said.
Green added that he was optimistic about what he’s already seen from Democratic candidates on Wall Street — and called for Biden to join the conversation.
“We've seen a race to the top among current Democratic presidential candidates who are competing to be bold on Wall Street reform … It would be notable if the sitting Vice President joined that race to the top,” he said.
His support for TPP would be particularly tough to address in a primary, as he’s been one of administration’s advocates for the deal on Capitol Hill. Unions have been outspoken in their opposition to the bill, and while they wouldn’t comment on a speculative Biden run, an AFL-CIO spokesman pointed to comments made by that group’s president, Richard Trumka, weighing in on how union workers would react if Clinton supported the trade deal.
“It would be tougher to mobilize working people. It will be tougher to get them excited and working, out there door-knocking and leafleting. And phone banking and all the things that are going to be necessary for her if she is the candidate,” he said.
Biden’s allies have touted his appeal to African American voters as one of his key assets in a potential presidential bid, pointing to what they say is his leadership on voting rights and civil liberties issues during his time in the White House as evidence.
But Biden’s role in crafting and passing tough-on-crime legislation in the 1980s and 90s that fueled the War on Drugs and have, many critics said, led to the policing and incarceration crises African Americans are grappling with today could undermine that support.
Eugene Puryear, a Black Lives Matter activist who also organizes the Stop Police Terror Project, based in D.C., said that “if [Biden] were to enter, he would probably have the worst history on issues of mass incarceration” of anyone in the field.
Puryear noted Biden authored or co-sponsored laws in the 80s and 90s that established sentencing disparities for drug offenses, strengthened penalties and prison sentences for drug possession and trafficking and funded and expanded prisons.
Biden has since eased his position on a number of those issues, particularly his support for drug sentencing disparities, once acknowledging “I am part of the problem” and that the disparity is “way out of line.” But he still touts the the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which he helped write and usher into law, as successful, however, and just months ago referred to it as the “1994 Biden Crime Bill.”
Puryear said that the “direct leadership role that he played, I think, puts a greater onus on him to come back and say, ‘That was wrong.”
“If he were to maintain what he did in the past was correct, I think he certainly could expect to be disrupted [by BLM activists] and quite frankly would deserve to be,” he added.
Biden supporters dismiss questions on his record, arguing that above all else, Biden’s main appeal in the race is stylistic rather than substantive. In an unspoken but implicit contrast with Clinton’s perceived secrecy surrounding her email use, Will Pierce, director of the group trying to draft Biden into the presidential race, said he’s supporting the Vice President because he’s “upfront” with the public.
“The thing is — one of the reasons I’m supporting the Vice President is that he has a 40-plus year record, and it’s out there, it’s public, and he’s very upfront about who he is and what he stands for,” Pierce said.
But Biden hasn’t yet had cause to be upfront on many of those more controversial issues throughout his political career. And with the active role he’s played on many of those key issues, being upfront may not be enough.
An apology from the Vice President would put Biden and Clinton on “roughly the same playing ground,” Puryear said, noting Clinton hasn’t offered what activists believe to be a detailed policy agenda to combat any of these issues.
But he added: “An apology is not really worth that much if it’s not backed up by anything forceful.”