The first words Joe Biden spoke as he announced his presidential campaign on Thursday were “Charlottesville, Virginia.”
The former vice president entered the race with a video that framed the 2020 campaign as a battle to redeem the soul of the nation from a Donald Trump presidency he cast as “an aberrant moment in time.” And he chose to highlight the President’s reaction to white supremacists’ August 2017 march in Charlottesville and the killing of a counter-protester.
Trump responded to the violence by claiming there were “very fine people on both sides.”
“With those words, the President of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said in his announcement video. “And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I’d ever seen in my lifetime.”
It was a drastic departure from other Democratic candidates, who have largely ignored Trump and tried to focus on their own agendas.
Most Democratic contenders have labeled Trump racist and condemned his comments about Charlottesville, Mexicans, Muslims and more. But they’ve also sought to frame their candidacies as a clash of Trump’s policies against their own visions for expanded health coverage, higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, humane immigration policies and more.
Biden’s approach, meanwhile, reflects a belief that that his best path to the Democratic nomination is to prove that he is the most formidable contender to take on Trump, and that he is unafraid to engage the President head-on from the first moment of his campaign.
To start that effort, Biden pointed to the incident in Charlottesville. In August 2017, a group of white supremacists rallied in the city– the site of a pitched battle over whether to remove a Robert E. Lee statue. They were met by counter-protesters, and during the rally, Heather Heyer was killed when a car rammed into her and other counter-protesters.
Trump – whose previous attacks on Mexicans and Muslims were embraced by white supremacists – responded to Heyer’s death by saying, “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
In the aftermath of the violence in Charlotesville, Biden wrote in The Atlantic that Trump’s willingness to divide the United States “knows no bounds,” and that Trump had “emboldened white supremacists with messages of comfort and support.”
“If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden wrote then. “The giant forward steps we have taken in recent years on civil liberties and civil rights and human rights are being met by a ferocious pushback from the oldest and darkest forces in America.”
With near universal name recognition, Biden has topped the early polls in key states – an indication of the deep reservoir of respect and affection for him within the Democratic Party, but also, and more importantly, the perception among Democrats that he is potentially the most electable Democrat to face Trump.
Still, part of Biden’s ability to prove his mettle against Trump is showing broader appeal to the base of the Democratic Party – an ability to win over ardent progressives and voters of color who will play an outsized role in choosing the Democratic nominee.
The former vice president could face a tall task in that regard, competing within a racially-diverse field where he is matched up against powerful female contenders like California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has made courting women of color a large part of her campaign strategy.
Cognizant that he is facing Harris, New Jersey sen. Cory Booker, as well as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who rose to prominence because of their appeal to young progressives, Biden launched his candidacy framing his run not as one about policy, but as a fight for progressive values and Democratic ideals.
Speaking to those voters, he chose Charlottesville as a symbol of how the Trump administration has violated those ideals – citing that event and Trump’s reaction to it as the most bracing example of the President’s embrace of white supremacists and the chief example of how he has distanced the White House from America’s most cherished ideals of equality and justice.
Biden’s decision to place Charlottesville at the center of his entrance into the 2020 race drew a mixed response from officials and activists in the city.
“Putting Charlottesville at the center of his rollout was bold… but he directly takes on Trump. That’s more than some others have done,” tweeted Wes Bellamy, a Charlottesville city councilor.
But Biden’s focus on Charlottesville also drew criticism from the city and from progressive activists who complained that Biden has so far ignored structural racism that pre-dated Trump’s presidency – and that other Democratic presidential contenders have already been pushed to address.
“Charlottesville is not a prop,” tweeted Lisa Woolfork, a professor and Black Lives Matter activist in Charlottesville.
The focus on Charlottesville also skirts the politically problematic elements of Biden’s own record – including the Anita Hill hearing during the Senate confirmation of Clarence Thomas and his 1990s support for criminal justice measures Democrats now largely see as disproportionately targeting black and brown communities.
Justice Democrats, the activist group that helped propel New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into office last year, criticized Biden for staying on the sidelines in more recent battles, such as the criticisms of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar over comments that were widely condemned as anti-Semitic.
“Joe Biden is centering Charlottesville and the fight against white nationalism in his 2020 campaign,” the group tweeted Thursday morning. “But where was Joe Biden when white nationalists and their sympathizers were beating up on Ilhan Omar?”