DETROIT -- Joe Biden’s appearance Thursday at Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressive activists, was supposed to be a chance for the vice president to burnish his credentials on a number of progressive issues. But his speech was overshadowed by the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine earlier in the day and anti-deportation protesters.
Biden, 71, has a reputation for being plainspoken, sometimes to a fault. But in addressing the much younger, tech-savvy crowd, he appeared to be in full salesman mode.
Though Biden is thought to be eyeing the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, he’s got a long way to go in overtaking front-runner Hillary Clinton. A new NBC News/Marist poll released Thursday has the former secretary of state beating Biden by at least fifty points in the crucial early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Clinton may be slightly less popular among members of the party’s left wing, but Elizabeth Warren, who is scheduled to address the Netroots gathering Friday morning, has overwhelmingly been the progressive anti-Clinton of choice. The "Ready for Warren" campaign had its official launch at Netroots, but the Massachusetts senator has not endorsed the group’s activities.
Biden was an hour late to take the stage, at least in part because he was being briefed on the Malaysian Airlines crash which had taken place earlier that day. Biden told the crowd the plane had "apparently" been shot down, but that much was still unknown regarding the circumstances of the incident.
"There may have been American citizens on board, and obviously that's our first concern," he said. "And now we're working every minute to try and confirm those reports as we speak."
Biden was soon interrupted by protesters who rose from the audience and began to chant, "Stop deporting our families," presumably in response to the mass deportations currently ramping up along America's southern border. Biden replied, "I respect your view and share your view" – suggesting he did not agree with President Barack Obama’s insistence that the children from Central America currently pouring over the border will be sent back. Biden also exhorted the audience to applaud the protesters.
While Biden’s reaction to the protesters’ outburst may have won the audience back to his side temporarily, it is unlikely to diffuse long-term anger over the Obama administration's deportation record.
Biden tried to keep his speech in safer territory, recalling the famous moment in 2012 when he came out publicly in favor of marriage equality before Obama had officially announced his own change of heart on the matter. ProgressNow executive director Arshad Hasan, who introduced the vice president to the crowd, credited him with "changing the dialogue in the White House."
"When I get asked a direct question, I give a direct answer," Biden said of his comments on same sex marriage. "I come out of the civil rights movement. And there's not a way in God's green earth that I could sit there and be asked a question about the civil rights movement of our day and remain silent."
Biden said Obama had agreed with the vice president’s remarks and had greeted him with a "big hug" the next time they met.
Biden cycled through a number of other issues near and dear to Netroots attendees' hearts. Climate change, Biden said, is real. The federal government, he said, needs to enact an employment nondiscrimination law, restore the middle class, and close tax loopholes for the wealthy.
Responding to recent remarks from his predecessor, former vice president Dick Cheney, Biden argued that "it's just as important to feed our people as it is to fund our military."
The speech closed with a portion that seemed aimed at a broader audience, beyond the Netroots convention. Urging the crowd to be civil when dealing with conservatives, he insisted Americans "are not inherently divided."
"We can debate without being demeaning," he said. "We should not hesitate for a minute to question the flawed judgment of our opponents, without having any necessity to question their motives."
The last line of his speech: "Never bet against America. It has never been a good bet."