DETROIT (AP) — Joe Biden rarely lets a public event pass without reminding voters of his work alongside President Barack Obama. But the former vice president insisted on Wednesday that he's not overly relying on that relationship to fuel his 2020 White House bid.
"It's not a crutch," Biden said during a forum in Detroit sponsored by the NAACP. "You can ask President Obama. I don't need any crutch."
The comment reflects the challenge facing Biden as he tries to protect his fragile status as the early Democratic front-runner. His frequent invocation of the Obama years could appeal to Democrats, particularly African Americans, who hold the former president in high regard. But presidential candidates aren't often successful if they're viewed as simply the next chapter of a prior administration.
The 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has made generational change a centerpiece of his presidential candidacy. Without naming Biden, he called on the audience to embrace change and resist the urge to return to the days before President Donald Trump.
"We will not and cannot win if our message as a Democratic Party is 'We're just going to go back to normal,'" Buttigieg said.
Biden, 76, insisted his candidacy is not a "continuation of Barack and our administration," noting "new problems" must be addressed today.
"But the fact of the matter is he's a close friend," Biden said of Obama. "I'm proud to have served with him."
Biden is at the top of most polls in no small part because of support from black voters who are crucial to winning the Democratic primary. The audience applauded Biden as he walked onto the stage at the NAACP event, but his past handling of racial issues has come under scrutiny in recent weeks.
He sparked a firestorm with comments last month touting his work alongside segregationist lawmakers when he was first elected to the Senate in the 1970s.
During the first presidential debate, California Sen. Kamala Harris slammed Biden's remarks and highlighted in personal terms his previous opposition to busing. She and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who also criticized Biden's segregationist comment, will share the stage with the former vice president at next week's Democratic debate and could revive their line of attack.
Booker previewed the possible clash ahead by hitting Biden on Wednesday as "an architect of mass incarceration" because of his role as a senator in crafting the 1994 crime bill. Biden said that characterization wasn't accurate and struck back at Booker's tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
"His police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African American men," Biden said.
Biden defended the crime bill as needed at the time and noted that it was supported by mayors and black leaders.
"We had a gigantic epidemic in America of violence, particularly in African American communities," he said, blaming the Republican takeover of Congress during the 1990s for blocking later reforms to the law.
"We have now a systemic problem in too many African Americans in jail right now," Biden said. "So I think we should shift the whole focus from what we're doing in terms of incarceration to rehabilitation."
Biden released a criminal justice proposal on Tuesday that would reverse several key provisions of the 1994 law. Among other things, he called for an end to the disparity that placed stricter sentencing terms on offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine as well as an end to the federal death penalty, which the legislation authorized as a potential punishment for an increasing number of crimes.
Even as Biden said he wasn't using Obama as a "crutch," he returned to the former president to defend himself against arguments that he has a problem on race.
"I doubt he would have picked me" as vice president "if these accusations about being wrong on civil rights are correct," Biden said.
Sloan reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Corey R. Williams in Detroit contributed to this report.