Biden’s message at the time was right in line with this approach. “In 1978, when he ran for re-election, he boasted that he was the most frugal senator,” Perlstein said.
Biden was also publicly ambivalent about many of the steps that Democrats were taking to protect the legacy of the civil rights movement, becoming the most prominent Democrat not representing a Southern state to oppose school busing — and later helping to craft the kinds of tough-on-crime policies that would lead to a huge spike in the number of Black and brown men in federal prisons.
Biden was “determined to be seen as a more moderate Democrat, especially on issues like busing,” Alter said.
By the time Biden mounted his first run for president, in 1988, the political tides seemed to validate that path. Four years earlier, Walter Mondale had lost in a landslide to Reagan after promising major investments in public services and higher taxes on wealthy Americans. Though Mondale framed his proposals through a lens of fiscal pragmatism — saying they would drastically cut the budget deficit — Reagan seized the opportunity to label Mondale a tax-and-spend Democrat, and he won re-election easily.
Raising taxes became a third rail in American politics, and the next time a Democrat won the presidency — Bill Clinton, in 1992 — he did it partly by shying away from big liberal promises. In his 1996 State of the Union address, ahead of a successful re-election campaign, Clinton declared in a triumphant tone, “The era of big government is over.”
But as Biden highlighted the economic impact of his $1.9 trillion relief package last week, it was hard not to hear echoes of a different Democrat’s campaign language from the 1980s: Jesse Jackson, arguably the most left-wing Democratic presidential contender in both 1984 and 1988. He had pledged to “keep hope alive,” at a time when American politics were turning rightward.
“I can say to you, the American people,” Biden said on Thursday, “help is here and hope is on the way.”