Before roaring union crowd, Biden stops short of jumping into presidential race
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the International Association of Firefighters at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, amid growing expectations he'll soon announce he's running for president. | Andrew Harnik / AP

WASHINGTON—Greeted by constant roaring chants of “Run, Joe, Run!” from a capacity crowd waving signs urging him to go for the White House, former Vice President Joe Biden stopped just short on March 12 of declaring his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Instead, his key lines to the hundreds of delegates to the Fire Fighters Legislative and Political Conference were: “I appreciate the energy you showed when I got up here. Save it a little longer. I may need it in a few weeks!”

Biden, a longtime political ally and personal friend of Fire Fighters—going back to the days when his grammar school was across the street from the firehouse in his Delaware hometown—was greeted not just by the chants but by a forest of signs in the union’s yellow-and-black colors and a big pro-Biden slogan projected on the screens behind the stage of the D.C. hotel ballroom.

And he responded with a combination of personal stories involving Fire Fighters and his family, including their rescues of his two oldest sons from an accident that killed his first wife and his daughter and his own rescue from a life-threatening brain injury. His wife Jill, a college professor who preceded him to the stage, added her own tale of Fire Fighters’ spouses caring for and comforting her when the family house caught fire in 2004.

All of those are indications that Biden, 76, Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years, is just about ready to jump into the already crowded Democratic presidential field. So was his speech.

In a folksy manner, occasionally rising to a shout when he wanted to make a key point, Biden went after President Donald Trump, though not by name, the Wall Street financiers who brought the U.S. the Great Recession, and the political divisiveness embroiling the country. “It’s not who we are,” he said.

Workers lay out signs that read “Run Joe Run” ahead of a speech by former Vice President Joe Biden to the International Association of Firefighters. | Andrew Harnik / AP

“This country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers. It was built by the great American middle class, and unions built that middle class,” Biden declared. That line got him one of many standing ovations from the crowd.

As for Trump, the ex-Veep asked rhetorically: “Have you seen that budget?” referring to the president’s $4.7 trillion spending blueprint for fiscal year 2020, which starts Oct. 1. “It cuts $845 billion from Medicare and $245 billion from Medicaid” over the next 10 years.

“Why? Because of a tax cut that gave $1.9 trillion to millionaires and billionaires,” over that same time. “How’s that going to help anyone in this room…Or anyone in this country?”

“Instead of giving you what you need, you have to fight for everything,” he continued. “For the basics, like safety, fair play, and health care.” And for ordering states to grant collective bargaining rights to public safety workers, notably Fire Fighters. Even in the months just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the GOP-run Congress bottled up that measure, which then-Senator Biden sponsored.

Biden also lamented the current political divisiveness that characterizes the country. He particularly cited Trump, though again not by name, for his infamous “there are good people on both sides” comments after the Nazis’ fatal riot in Charlottesville, Va. There, a neo-Nazi driving a car at high speed deliberately ran down counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.

And particularly playing to the IAFF crowd, Biden loudly demanded the administration and Congress permanently authorize—and pay compensation to—the lingering victims of the al-Qaeda attacks: Fire Fighters, Iron Workers, Electrical Workers, other unionists and area residents who have suffered and died from rare or avoidable illnesses from inhaling the toxic mix of chemicals and gases produced when the Twin Towers collapsed.

“Why the hell are we arguing about that still? It must be permanently funded!” he shouted, getting yet another standing ovation.

“Keep the faith? No, as my grandma used to say, ‘Go spread it.’”  He left to yet another standing ovation and more chants of “Run, Joe, Run!”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.