Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden on Wednesday defended his record on race at the annual NAACP convention, saying he assumes former President Barack Obama would never have tapped him as his right-hand man if his resume on civil rights was as deplorable as his critics make it out to be.
The race to define Mr. Biden in the eyes of voters and liberal activists has become a prominent issue over the summer months of the Democratic primary battle, and his rivals have been test-driving attacks that they can use against him when they square off on stage for the second Democratic debate next week in Detroit.
Mr. Biden received the warmest of welcomes at the NAACP gathering in the Motor City and a round of applause when he said that if his record was so egregious, then the man who went on to become the nation’s first black president would have discovered it during the vice presidential vetting process.
“I doubt that he would have picked me if these accusations about me being wrong on civil rights is correct,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Obama.
Mr. Biden also countered criticism over his lead role in passing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Lawmakers who supported the bill, including most of the Congressional Black Caucus, were confronting a “gigantic epidemic of violence — particularly in African American communities,” he said.
Mr. Biden said the reason the law’s shortcomings were never addressed is because Democrats subsequently lost seats in Congress. He then pivoted to the proposal he rolled out this week to overhaul the criminal justice system, saying it was time to end “systemic racism.”
“We should shift the whole focus of what we’re doing from incarceration to rehabilitation,” he said.
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey wasn’t willing to let Mr. Biden off the hook. He told reporters that the former senator from Delaware was an architect of mass incarceration.
“I’m disappointed that it’s taken Joe Biden years and years until he was running for president to actually say that he made a mistake, that there were things in that bill that were extraordinarily bad,” Mr. Booker said.
Mr. Biden fired back by saying Mr. Booker ought to look at how black communities were treated on his watch as mayor of Newark.
“His police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African American men,” Mr. Biden said. “The Justice Department took action against them, held the police department accountable. He objected to federal interference.
“If he wants to go back and talk about records, I’m happy to do that, but I’d rather talk about the future,” he said.
The political jousting at the NAACP event emphasized the importance of black voters in the 2020 race, particularly in the South Carolina primary.
It also was the latest reminder of how the Obama legacy is weighing heavily on the campaign as Democrats hone their campaign messages and strategies.
Mr. Obama’s victory in 2008 marked a historic milestone for the nation and was viewed as a major political breakthrough for black communities that seemed unthinkable years earlier.
A decade later, the black unemployment rate has hit historic lows, but President Trump’s tenure in the White House has reignited fears in the black community about issues of race and fueled nostalgia for the Obama-Biden years.
Mr. Obama has stayed in contact with Mr. Biden but has not endorsed his bid.
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, has tried to strike a balance between riding the Obama coattails and delivering his own vision, while Mr. Booker and others have zeroed in on the decisions Mr. Biden made before he teamed up with Mr. Obama in the White House.
Mr. Biden has led in the polls throughout the race, but his support slipped, including among black voters, after the first presidential debate in Miami last month. He appeared to be caught off guard when Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California attacked his opposition to desegregation busing in the 1970s.
Ms. Harris also received a warm welcome Wednesday at the NAACP candidate forum, though she decided against taking shots at Mr. Biden.
She instead repeated her attack line that Mr. Trump is a “predator” and that she was ready to “prosecute the case” against four more years for the president.
“The thing you’ve got to know is that it is the nature of predators — it is their instinct and their nature — to prey on those they perceive to be vulnerable,” she said. “The other thing about predators: They’re cowards.”
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, was asked by the forum’s moderator whether serving as Mr. Obama’s vice president is a “crutch.”
“It is not a crutch,” the former vice president replied.
“Look, the fact of the matter is this is not a continuation of Barack or our administration,” he said. “There are new problems … that are different from the ones we faced at the time. But the fact of the matter is he is a close friend. I am very proud to have served with him.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas rounded out the list of Democrats who appeared at the forum.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who is challenging Mr. Trump in the Republican primary, also addressed the crowd. He said the Republican Party under Mr. Trump is on the verge of becoming “universally viewed as the party of racism in America.”
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