Fact-Checking Joe Biden Before the Iowa Caucuses

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. remains atop most national polls before the first votes are cast next month in the Democratic presidential primary. Before the Iowa caucuses, The New York Times reviewed recent statements he made defending his decades-long career, stressing his standing in the black community and highlighting his perceived strength on foreign policy. Here’s a fact check.

what the facts are

What Was Said

Antonia Hylton, a reporter for Vice News: “Do you think, though, that it’s fair for voters to question your commitment to Social Security when in the past you’ve proposed a freeze to it?”

Mr. Biden: “No, I didn’t propose a freeze.”
at the Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum last week in Iowa

False. In 1984, faced with budget deficits under the Reagan administration, Mr. Biden was a co-sponsor of an amendment with two Republican senators that froze for one year nearly all military and domestic spending, including cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security benefits.

Pressed by Ms. Hylton after his inaccurate denial, Mr. Biden said that his proposal came “in the context of we saved Social Security during the Reagan administration” and noted that Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a liberal stalwart, voted for the plan.

When President Ronald Reagan entered office in 1981, Social Security was running low on funding and Mr. Reagan did propose to make deep cuts to benefits. But he ultimately endorsed and signed bipartisan legislation in 1983 — which Mr. Biden and Mr. Kennedy both voted for — to assure the fund’s continuing solvency. Changes included postponing cost-of-living adjustments, and the Biden campaign said that the former vice president was referring to this episode.

“It is easy to believe Biden thought minor cuts in the program in the short run would represent a better outcome than the much bigger cuts President Reagan and his advisers seemed to favor,” Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. “In those days, ‘compromise’ was not a dirty word in the eyes of most members of Congress.”

Mr. Biden’s own freeze plan, though, came “well after the Social Security rescue was over,” said Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University who wrote a book on the 1983 effort.

Rather, the plan was another step in a decades-long “mating dance between centrist Democrats and Republicans to come up with a grand bargain on the deficit,” said Eric Laursen, author of “The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan.”

Mr. Biden said as much in April 1984, as he decried “gargantuan deficits” and argued that not accepting a one-year freeze to cost-of-living adjustments would lead to a “a fundamental debate over whether or not there should be COLAs in Social Security” at all. The amendment that he co-sponsored ultimately failed by a vote of 65 to 33 (Mr. Kennedy voted against it).

Mr. Biden’s overall record on Social Security includes both actions that would slow or reduce spending and those that would protect benefits.

He voted for an amendment in 1995 to require a balanced federal budget that he and other Democrats warned would endanger the Social Security fund. He supported raising the eligibility age for Social Security in 2007. And he brokered a deal with Republican lawmakers in 2010 that extended the Bush-era tax cuts and created a holiday for the payroll tax, which funds Social Security, that temporarily reduced the tax by two percentage points.

But Mr. Biden also voted for an amendment to that balanced budget legislation in 1995 that would have excluded Social Security from its aims. From 2001 to 2008, he repeatedly voted against privatizing Social Security and for improving the trust fund’s solvency, according to the Alliance for Retired Americans, an affiliate of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that represents union retirees. In 2008, Mr. Biden’s last year in the Senate, he received a lifetime score of 96 out of 100 from the group. He spoke out against Social Security privatization in the 2012 vice-presidential debate and his current plan vows to protect the safety net.

What Was Said

Lauren Kelley, New York Times Editorial Board member: “You also originally argued for greater exemptions to the contraception mandate in Obamacare. So I think there’s some concern out there —”

Mr. Biden: “No, I didn’t, by the way.”
— in an interview with The New York Times Editorial Board published Jan. 17

This is disputed. The Obama administration announced in January 2012 a rule requiring most insurance plans to cover birth control free of charge, including for the employees of hospitals, schools and charities run by Catholic groups.

The making of the rule sparked an internal debate in the White House. Reporting from news outlets cast Mr. Biden as part of the camp arguing for a less stringent rule.

According to ABC News and Bloomberg, the vice president and William Daley, then the chief of staff to President Barack Obama, warned of the political fallout with Catholic voters who backed Mr. Obama in the 2008 election and argued that the issue would be framed as an attack on religious liberty. The Times reported that officials had initially sought a year to work out a compromise, but “a group of advisers had bested Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and others and sold the president on a stricter rule.”

The announcement fueled a fierce backlash from Catholic organizations and Republicans. As the Obama administration contemplated the fallout, Mr. Biden did not publicly oppose or defend the rule, but hinted during a radio interview that it would be softened.

“There’s going to be a significant attempt to work this out, and there’s time to do that,” he said on Feb. 9, 2012. “And as a practicing Catholic, you know, I am of the view that this can be worked out and should be worked out and I think the president, I know the president, feels the same way.”

Mr. Biden also said in the interview that the administration wanted to “make sure women who need access to birth control are not denied that,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

A day later, the administration revised the rule to shift the responsibility of providing contraception to insurers, rather than the religiously affiliated institutions themselves.

what the facts are

What Was Said

Ms. Hylton: “Why is Senator Sanders leading you with voters under age 35?”

Mr. Biden: “He is not leading me with black voters under the age — look, just all I know is, I am leading everybody, combined, with black voters.”
— at the Brown & Black forum

This is exaggerated. Mr. Biden is correct that in most polls, he leads Democratic candidates among black voters overall, but he is wrong to deny Senator Bernie Sanders’ edge with younger African Americans.

A January poll conducted by The Washington Post and Ipsos, a nonpartisan research firm, found that Mr. Biden held a wide lead among black Democrats with 48 percent support, but Mr. Sanders led with those between age 18 and 34 at 42 percent while Mr. Biden placed second at 30 percent.

An Ipsos survey conducted with Vice this month asked black Americans who they would consider voting for and found that 56 percent would consider voting for Mr. Sanders and 54 percent for Mr. Biden, a statistical tie. Among those between ages 18 and 34, Mr. Sanders’ support increased to 81 percent compared with 65 percent for Mr. Biden, according to a breakdown provided by Chris Jackson, the vice president of Ipsos Public Affairs.

In a poll by the political action committee BlackPac and released in December, Mr. Biden led all black voters with 38 percent, but trailed Mr. Sanders in support among black voters between ages 18 and 24 at 14 percent compared to 30 percent for Mr. Sanders. Support for the two candidates was nearly identical among black voters between the ages of 25 and 39, with 24 percent supporting Mr. Biden and 25 percent supporting Mr. Sanders.

The Sanders campaign also pointed to an array of surveys demonstrating the same generational gap: a fall poll from Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics where Mr. Sanders was the first choice of black voters between ages 18 and 29, a January poll from Chegg Media Center where Mr. Sanders led with black college students with 43 percent and a September survey from Essence Magazine where Mr. Sanders had the most support of black women between ages 18 and 34 with 19 percent.

What Was Said

“I was involved in the civil rights movement.”
— at the Brown & Black forum

This is exaggerated. Over his long political career, Mr. Biden has occasionally suggested he played a greater role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s than he actually did. While there are accounts of Mr. Biden participating in a few desegregation events, he has also said he would not consider himself an activist in the movement.

Mr. Biden has said that he protested a segregated movie theater in demonstrations in Wilmington, Del. at the Rialto Theater in the early 1960s. His account is backed by a former president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a former president of the Delaware A.F.L.-C.I.O.

A 1987 edition of “Current Biography Yearbook,” a magazine that profiles American figures, noted that Mr. Biden had participated in “anti-segregation sit-ins at Wilmington’s Town Theatre during his high school years.”

During his first bid for president, Mr. Biden wrongly said in 1987 that he had “marched with tens of thousands of others” in the civil rights movement. Later, a spokesman for Mr. Biden clarified that he had participated in actions to “desegregate one restaurant and one movie theater.” Mr. Biden himself conceded that “I was not an activist.”

“I worked at an all-black swimming pool in the east side of Wilmington, Del. I was involved in what they were thinking, what they were feeling. But I was not out marching,” he said in a news conference that fall. “I was not down in Selma. I was not anywhere else. I was a suburbanite kid who got a dose of exposure to what was happening to black Americans.”

He struck a similar tone in interviews with the journalist Jules Witcover, who wrote the book “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption.”

“I didn’t do any big deal, but I marched a couple of times to desegregate the movie theaters in downtown Wilmington,” Mr. Biden said in the book. But he acknowledged that “I wasn’t part of any great movement.”

what the facts are

What Was Said

“The president showed up, met with them, gave him legitimacy, weakened these sanctions we have against him.”
— at the Democratic presidential debate in January

This is misleading. Mr. Biden is referring to Mr. Trump’s efforts to engage diplomatically with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. There is a widespread consensus that the president’s willingness to meet with him provided Mr. Kim with additional credibility at home and abroad without giving the United States and its allies much in return.

At the same time, Mr. Trump’s meetings with the North Koreans have increased support from China and Russia for easing United Nations sanctions on North Korea, as the Biden campaign pointed out. Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a research group, pointed out that South Korea has also recently been testing the waters for securing sanctions relief for its northern neighbor.

But the Trump administration itself has not lifted the United States’ own sanctions and has opposed the calls from China and Russia to ease the international sanctions.

“As far as I know, sanctions have not been eased,” said Jim Walsh of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Certainly the international U.N. sanctions continue unabated, and I am unaware of any significant sanctions relief granted by the administration.”

A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department said Mr. Biden’s statement was inaccurate and that the agency “has sanctioned 261 individuals and entities under its North Korea authorities, accounting for more than half of North Korea-related sanctions ever imposed.”

Nearly every month from March 2017 to March 2018, the department announced sanctions on North Korean nationals and companies, as well people and entities around the world linked to North Korea. After Mr. Trump’s summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore in June 2018, Treasury imposed more sanctions in August, September, October, November and December of that year.

In March 2019, shortly after Mr. Trump met again with Mr. Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, the president issued a confusing statement on Twitter announcing that he had rolled back newly imposed sanctions on North Korea, though restrictions announced a day earlier on two Chinese companies linked to North Korea were not actually revoked. The White House press secretary at the time, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, explained that Mr. Trump “doesn’t feel it’s necessary to add additional sanctions at this time.”

A month later, Mr. Trump said the sanctions on North Korea are “at a fair level” and should remain in place. More were announced in June, August and September. The United States opposed lifting United Nations sanctions on North Korea in December and sanctioned two more entities January.

Mr. Biden’s theory that Mr. Trump’s personal appeals to Mr. Kim has weakened the resolve of other countries to enforce sanctions is a matter of interpretation.

This line of argument “was trotted out every time Obama engaged in diplomacy,” Mr. Walsh said. “We don’t know if diplomacy with North Korea has had the effect of reducing the impact of sanctions. Maybe. But as with all things North Korea, it’s hard to say.”

Curious about the accuracy of a claim? Email factcheck@nytimes.com.