WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden suggested Monday that a “physical revolution” like the one growing on the religious left could help overcome Republican opposition to left-leaning poverty initiatives.
The 76-year-old Biden, a former senator from Delaware, was the first of nine 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to speak at a presidential forum hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign during the three-day Poor People's Moral Action Congress held at Trinity Washington University.
Hundreds of activists and clergy from all 50 states gathered in the nation's capital for what they say is a "call for moral revival," focusing on issues of poverty, climate change, voter suppression, wealth inequality and access to health care.
“For too many years, [the narrative] of what's happened is that with great income inequality, what's happened is the charlatans have been able to pit white folks against white folks and white folks against Latinos, et cetera. Because if you have a problem, it is the [fault of the] other,” Biden told the crowd.
“Look at what is happening now, the reason [some will say] why poor folks are poor is because of all those immigrants, all those Muslims, all those African-Americans. It's a bunch of malarkey.”
Biden praised the Poor People's Campaign for "picking up where it was left off by Dr. [Martin Luther] King" and for exposing the "exploitation" by those in power to get underserved populations to blame others for financial troubles.
“The exploitation is more extreme than it has ever been because of the gigantic income inequality that exists in America,” Biden stressed. “It is bigger than any time since the turn of the last century.”
The current iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign, which takes the same name as the one launched in the 1960s by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was launched in 2018. It claims to be nonpartisan and connects thousands of interfaith religious leaders, activists, organizations, and persons impacted by poverty.
The campaign is co-chaired by Disciples of Christ pastor and NAACP civil rights activist Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, founder of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.
Barber and Theoharis were highly critical during the event of what they called heretical white "Christian nationalism" and policies passed by the Trump administration that they say make issues worse for impoverished communities.
The former vice president, who served under President Barack Obama, also appeared to slam Trump administration policies.
Without getting specific, he told the hundreds gathered in the university’s gymnasium that it is “ridiculous” that there are policies in place that he says discriminate against and devalue “black people, native Americans, people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers” at a time when there are “deep inequities” in society.
Biden argued that it is in the best interest of “everybody” to bring people out of poverty and move them “into a place where they are able to compete” through access to housing, education and health care.
“It benefits the whole nation,” Biden contended. “We have to stop letting these guys use the divisions that exist in the country, like charlatans always do, to divide the country.”
Biden indicated his support for things such as a $15 minimum wage, making sure that everyone in the U.S. has access to Medicaid, increasing Title I spending for underprivileged schools from $15 billion to $45 billion per year.
He also vowed to make sure that all kids aged three to five have access to preschool education.
“There isn't a single reason in the world why every single solitary child in America isn't covered by health insurance,” he said. “There isn't a single reason in the world when any parent needing to pay for daycare should not have a $8,000 tax credit.”
Biden was asked by moderator Joy Reid of MSNBC how he would “get past” a majority Republican Senate or even a Republican minority in the Senate that uses the power to filibuster.
“That happened when you were vice president and anything that came from the Obama-Biden administration, Mitch McConnell considered dead on arrival,” Reid said, referring to Obama's final years in office after Republicans gained control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms.
Biden responded: “I know you are one of the ones that thinks it is naive to think that we have to work together. But the fact of the matter is that if we can't get a consensus, then nothing happens except abuse of power from the executive.”
Secondly, Biden touted his involvement in campaigning for House candidates during the 2018 midterm elections in which the Democrats regained control of the House.
“There are certain things where it just takes a brass-knuckle fight,” he stated. “When they say 'We are not going to support you,' we do what I did last time. I went into 68 races in 22 states. I campaigned. They were not blue states.”
Biden remembered a time in which he was criticized by some in the press for saying that Democrats would win back the House in 2018 and win over 40 votes.
“Well, we got over 40 votes back,” he stated. “We beat people who were Republican with mainstream, Democratic people going in and saying, 'Look, this is what they are doing to health care. This is what they are doing with [this issue].’ We have to go out and beat these folks if they don't agree. That is what presidents are supposed to do — persuade the public and move people as to what is going on.”
Biden also touted his ability in the past to persuade Republicans in the Senate. Biden explained that he was able to get three Republicans to change their votes on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
“What happened there? We didn't have the votes initially, so I went out and changed three Republican votes by persuading. That doesn't mean you can do it all the time. But it kept us from going into depression,” Biden said. “So folks, look. If you start off with the notion that there is nothing you can do, why don't you all go home then?
“Or, let's start a real physical revolution if you are talking about it,” he continued. “We have to be able to change what we are doing within our system. If you talk about the creed: ‘We the people, we hold these truths to be self-evident.’ We haven’t always lived up to that standard but we have never fully abandoned it. When we abandon it, we lose everything both nationally and internationally in terms of the power of our persuasion.”
Biden asserted that the reason the rest of the world follows and looks up to the U.S. is not that the country has the largest military in the world but because Americans lead by the “power of our example.
“You can shame people to do things the right way,” he explained.
The Poor People’s Campaign just completed a 93-city bus tour and claims to have pulled off the “most expansive wave” of nonviolent civil disobedience in the 21st century with over 5,000 people that engaged in acts of civil disobedience.
The Poor People’s Campaign also plans to host a Moral March on Washington next June.
The Poor People’s Campaign also published the “Poor People's Moral Budget” on Monday. The document highlights several areas of the campaign’s agenda that includes the expansion of voting rights, increasing the minimum wage, investing in clean energy, and shifting foreign policy “toward peace and diplomacy."
Barber has been praised by those on the political left as a champion of social justice. He is known for his "Moral Mondays" rallies that gained steam in North Carolina, where he led protests against conservative policies passed by the state legislature.
Barber has received conservative criticism over his support for the nation's largest abortion provider Planned Parenthood. Black conservative Christian leaders, including Martin Luther King's niece, blame Planned Parenthood for targeting black communities for abortion.
Among the eight other Democrat presidential candidates who spoke at the Moral Action Congress Monday were California Sen. Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The Poor People's Campaign is not alone. Similar initiatives have been launched by left-leaning religious leaders in the past year to respond to what they consider immoral Trump administration policies.
Last year, the "Reclaiming Jesus" movement was launched by a group of clergy that includes Sojourners' Jim Wallis and Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.