WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden told an anti-poverty gathering Monday that President Trump has pitted racial groups against one another, but he pushed back against criticism of his calls for bipartisan compromise.
Biden, who is running for president in 2020, appeared at an event hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign and was the first of nine Democratic presidential candidates to field questions from the group’s organizers and some attendees.
In his brief opening remarks, he said that “for too many years … the charlatans have been able to pit black folks against white folks against Latinos.”
Biden said that some politicians tell Americans that “the reason why poor folks are poor is because of all those immigrants, all those Muslims, all those African-Americans.”
“It’s a bunch of malarkey,” he said.
A bit later in a roughly 25-minute question-and-answer session, Biden returned to this theme of “charlatans” who pit groups against one another and explicitly called out Trump.
“We have a guy in the White House who has turned it into an art form,” Biden said.
But he did not back down from his core brand, which is as an experienced politician who knows how to work with Republicans in Congress to pass legislation. Joy-Ann Reid, an MSNBC host who moderated the event, asked Biden how he would get meaningful legislation passed if Republicans controlled the Senate.
“Joy-Ann, I know you're one of the ones who thinks it's naive to say we have to work together,” Biden said, getting up from his chair and walking over to stand closer to Reid, leaning toward her as he spoke.
“If we can’t get a consensus, nothing happens except an abuse of power by the executive,” Biden said. “If you start off with the notion that there’s nothing you can do, why don’t we all just go home then, or let’s start a real physical revolution.
“We have to be able to change what we’re doing within our system,” Biden said.
When asked how he would address poverty, Biden referred to a core plank of his recently released education plan, to triple federal funding for low-income school districts from $16 billion to $48 billion.
He also talked about rolling back Trump’s tax cuts and closing tax loopholes for wealthy individuals and corporations.
And he said he would work with Congress to restore the preclearance portion of the Voting Rights Act, which was removed in the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. Preclearance required states with a history of racial discrimination to check with the Justice Department before making substantial changes to their election rules or laws.
After the Shelby decision, a number of states with Republican-controlled legislatures passed laws regarding voter ID and erected other obstacles to voting that they say were intended to prevent voter fraud, but that critics say were an attempt to suppress the vote of minorities and the poor.
Biden also said he found it difficult to make ends meet in the early ’70s as a single father to two sons on his $42,000 salary as a freshman senator, after his first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash.
“I found it hard,” Biden said. “I can only imagine what it is like for single parents trying to raise a child on a minimum wage.”
Biden was the first speaker in the long lineup of Democratic presidential hopefuls to address the crowd of roughly 1,000 people who traveled from around the country to attend the three-day gathering.
He was to be followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; California Sen. Kamala Harris; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; California Rep. Eric Swalwell; businessman Andrew Yang; Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam; and author Marianne Williamson.
It was one of the first times Biden has appeared at a forum with other candidates. He has so far employed an above-the-fray strategy, focusing his rhetoric on Trump and adopting the pose of a frontrunner.
The Rev. Willam Barber, one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, prepped the audience not to treat the gathering as a rally for any one candidate or to “holler out at your candidate.”
Barber asked the crowd of organizers, union members and activists to greet each presidential candidate with a “polite welcome and a polite thank-you.”
“We are listening to the answers,” he said.
And Barber also asked the audience not to behave in a partisan manner, noting that they had invited the president to attend. "This is not a Democratic or a Republican rally,” Barber said.
In addition, he exhorted them to focus on substance, not appearance. “Do not worry about cameras or pictures. Take out your notepad. That’s what [the candidates] need to see,” Barber said.
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