CHICAGO — When Joe Biden spoke to a mostly African American audience here Thursday, he was a different person than presidential candidate who was thrashed over the issue of segregation at a nationally televised debate the night before.
This time, Biden was fiery, concise and clear as he ticked off his work with hometown hero Barack Obama and defended his civil rights record, which came into question after his high-profile clash with Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the Democratic primary. In a more controlled environment, with the help of teleprompters, Biden laid out his record on civil rights in a way that didn’t resonate the night before.
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“Before I start, I’d like to say something about the debate we had last night. And I heard and I listened to and I respect senator Harris. We all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights,” Biden said. “I want to be clear about my record and position. On racial justice, including busing — I never, never, never ever opposed voluntary busing as a program that senator Harris participated in.”
Biden’s mentioning of Harris’s name and his insistence that he respects her reflected the toll of the damage she inflicted on him. Normally Biden doesn’t mention his rivals, a luxury of being the frontrunner.
Still, the already planned appearance before the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition allowed Biden the fortune of offering rehabilitating remarks on race in front of a crowd most attuned to the issue. Jackson said that during a private meeting with Biden ahead of the remarks, he told the former vice president what he needed to do.
“What I said to him in our meeting was that people who were proud of the relationship with Barack and all of that — what came out last night is he’s been on the side of state’s rights. Doesn’t make him a bad guy but we’re on different teams,” Jackson said of his discussion with Biden. “What we fought for was against state’s rights. I said: ‘You must be very clear, just like you made an adjustment on the Hyde amendment, very clear. So he’s very clear on his work with Barack.”
Biden did as much in his address.
“These rights are not up to the states to decide, they’re our federal government’s duty,” Biden told the crowd. “There’s a constitutional question to protect the civil rights of every single American. And that’s always been my position. And so that’s why I ran for federal office in the first place.”
Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), who hasn’t endorsed a Democratic candidate but attended Biden’s address, defended the former vice president. When asked if he needed to be more contrite about his past positions, Kelly disagreed.
“I actually think he needs to be him,” Kelly said when asked if Biden should be more contrite. “Then people will see that’s the Biden they know.”
The confrontation with Harris, she added in response to a question, “was not a death blow.”
Not everyone was impressed by Biden’s attempt at damage control. Leaving the event on Thursday, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said Biden missed his opportunity. The former vice president, Rush said, “was using the Obama years as red meat” in his remarks and didn’t shift his position enough — or apologize for his remarks about working collegially with segregationist senators — to make a mark before prospective black voters.
“I think he thought about what he didn’t say last night and tried to make up for it. To me, he didn’t move the needle at all,” Rush said. “Today fell short. He could have had a standing ovation. Instead he had scant applause.”
Rush said Biden’s debate performance raised doubts about whether the former vice president can go up against and beat Donald Trump.
“The question seared in my mind is, ‘Can he do it?’” Rush said. “I’m convinced Kamala can do it. I’m not certain that Biden can do it.”
One Biden surrogate fretted that the candidate looked and sounded too aged at the debate.
“It looked like a 76-year-old man up there,” the person said. “I hope it’s a one-off. But there’s a fear it isn’t.”
In a sign of the importance of the issue to Biden, his campaign blasted out an email with quoting from his Thursday speech, using a respectful tone toward Harris and words that many of his advisers wished he would have said onstage.
The statement also was more forward looking than Biden was in the debate.
“The discussion in this race today shouldn’t be about the past,” the email said. “It should be about how we can do better and move forward and give every kid in this country an opportunity to succeed. That means good schools in every neighborhood. No child’s future should be determined by their zip code.”
Marc Caputo contributed to this report.