Biden, Under Fire for Civil Rights Record, Stresses Ties to Obama

CHARLESTON, S.C. — After weeks of facing sharp criticisms over his decades-long history on issues including busing and civil rights, Joseph R. Biden Jr. is expected on Saturday to give the most forceful defense yet of his record, with an emphasis on his time as vice president to Barack Obama, the country’s first black president.

The remarks are slated to come during Mr. Biden’s weekend trip to South Carolina, a key early-voting state with a heavily African-American Democratic electorate, where Mr. Obama is beloved. It is a state where Mr. Biden has so far enjoyed significant good will tied to his time in the Obama administration, despite recent scrutiny of his civil rights record, and of slipping national poll numbers following the first Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential primary.

“If you look at the issues I’ve been attacked on, nearly every one of them is for something well before 2008,” Mr. Biden is expected to say Saturday afternoon during his first public event in Sumter, S.C., according to prepared remarks. “It’s as if my opponents want you to believe I served from 1972 until 2008 — and then took the next eight years off. They don’t want to talk much about my time as vice president.”

“I was vetted by him and selected by him,” Mr. Biden is expected to say of Mr. Obama. “I will take his judgment of my record, my character and my ability to handle the job over anyone else’s.”

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For weeks, Mr. Biden’s aides had watched in frustration as much of the conversation around the former vice president had centered not on his time in the White House — which is how voters know him best — but on controversies dating back to the 1970s, from Mr. Biden’s active opposition of many busing initiatives, to his working relationships with Southern segregationist senators.

Mr. Biden had brought up those relationships himself as he fondly recalled a more civil time in the Senate at a fund-raiser last month. He has a habit of telling stories that date back decades, and that can sometimes sound off-key in today’s more progressive Democratic Party.

But the prepared remarks suggest an effort to focus on a more forward-looking message, after spending the Fourth of July holiday in Iowa locked in a back-and-forth with Senator Kamala Harris over the issue of federally mandated busing.

Ms. Harris had been pressed by reporters to clarify her current position on that issue after attacking Mr. Biden for his 1970s-era opposition to many busing measures during the first Democratic primary debate. His campaign suggested that, despite her criticism, Ms. Harris’s position today is essentially the same as his, while she said that the civil rights environment in the 1970s had been different than it is now, and that his position at that time was “wrong.”

“America in 2019 is a very different place than the America of the 1970s,” Mr. Biden’s prepared remarks say. “And that’s a good thing. I’ve witnessed an incredible amount of change in this nation, and I’ve worked to make that change happen. And yes — I’ve changed also.”

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Last month, amid an outcry from progressive organizations and women’s rights groups, Mr. Biden ultimately reversed himself on his long-held support for the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions.

But more than two months into his third presidential campaign, Mr. Biden has yet to articulate more broadly the ways in which he has changed during his decades in public service.

The Sumter address offers an opportunity to do so — but at least one rival campaign is already signaling that they do not plan to let Mr. Biden move on so easily.

“Every candidate’s record will (and should) be scrutinized in this race,” tweeted Ian Sams, the national press secretary for Ms. Harris. “It’s a competition to become President of the United States. There are no free passes.”

Mr. Biden is focused on courting African-American voters while also seeking to appeal to disaffected Democrats in the industrial Midwest who supported President Trump in 2016.

The current president, meanwhile, has been increasingly eager to talk about the Obama years, though his dismissive depiction of that administration is quite different than Mr. Biden’s.