Neither former Vice President Joe Biden nor former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas has officially entered the presidential race, but Democratic insiders have little doubt both will take the plunge. O'Rourke may leap into the fray in the next week or so, Biden early next month. Each will be a top-tier candidate, entering the race with high name ID, a donor base and considerable political talent.
Biden's challenge is four-fold: Mastering online fundraising; coming to terms with his record on race; maintaining self-discipline; and setting out a vision that is more than a defense of the Obama years.
As for fundraising, the 76-year-old must know what he doesn't know and let social media gurus teach him new fundraising tactics. Presumably he can attract top talent.
On race, Biden's decades-old remarks about segregation and his championing of the crime bill in the 1990s (which led to mass incarceration of African-Americans) are a potential, not unsubstantial problem with one of the most critical groups in the coalition. He will need to take this issue head-on, right up front, express remorse and explain how he has learned about racial injustice over the years. (He'll need a compelling civil rights and criminal justice reform agenda as well.) Humility and candor in a major speech (perhaps his kick-off) with an African-American audience might be his best chance to put this behind him.
As for self-discipline, Biden's infamous proclivity for gaffes may not be as much of a danger as an outburst of anger directed at President Donald Trump (Biden's done it before, declaring he'd have "beat the hell out of" Trump in high school) and/or in defense of his family. He wears his heart on his sleeve; but most Americans want a calm and mature president, not another drama queen.
With regard to his vision, he should not feel compelled to defend every Obama administration action. He must focus not only on what Trump has done to unravel progress but what Biden will do to get America on track again. Experience is an asset because it will allow him to accomplish ... what? That's what he'll have to tell us.
In a way, O'Rourke has all the problems Biden doesn't - and few of the deficits that Biden must address. O'Rourke, 46, can raise gobs of money online - and likely will when he enters the race. His Senate race showed he can generate wild enthusiasm among nonwhite voters and young people. He has a vision - healing America, listening to one another, embracing diversity. However, he will be in the spotlight from the get-go, and will have to answer three questions.
First, is he going to run a national, professional campaign or try to wing it with a handful of advisers? If the latter, his campaign will be a disaster waiting to happen and will make plenty of Democrats nervous that he's ill-equipped to take on an incumbent president.
Second, what does he really want to do? "Stronger together" got Hillary Clinton nowhere because it didn't give voters a firm idea of what they were going to do after they got together. Yes, healing and reconciliation, plus optimism and a return to American values, will get plenty of applause. But after that, what will he want to do as president? Showing he has a concrete vision and policy specifics (including competence as commander-in-chief) will be essential if he is going to retain and expand support. No more over-sharing on social media. No more "I don't know" answers on big issue. He could use some serious policy speeches with some forward-looking initiatives.
Third, this isn't beanbag. He will be attacked fairly and unfairly. He'll have to reach a balance between showing he can defend himself, on one hand, and, on the other, avoiding the mistake Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made in trying to out-Trump Trump.
O'Rourke has more upside than any candidate in the race - if he can show he's serious, competent and tough. Biden will start with a reservoir of goodwill. He'll use his experience to run up a big lead - if he can show he's learned from the past and knows where he wants to take the country. Candidly, it's going to be fascinating seeing how these two candidates so far apart in age, experience, temperament and skill-set fare.