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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Misleading Anti-Biden Ad from Trump Backers

A misleading television ad from the Committee to Defend the President falsely suggests that former President Barack Obama is criticizing his former vice president, Joe Biden, for his racial attitudes.

The pro-Trump super PAC’s ad begins with an image of Biden and a narrator saying, “Joe Biden promised to help our community. It was a lie. Here’s President Obama.”

It then segues to Obama reading a passage from his 1995 book “Dreams from My Father” about how African Americans have been the victims of “plantation politics.”

Viewers hear Obama say: “Black people in the worst jobs, the worst housing. Police brutality rampant. When the so-called black committeeman came around election time, we’d all line up and vote the straight Democratic ticket. Sell our souls for a Christmas turkey.”

While the ad doesn’t say that Obama is talking about Biden, it clearly is aimed at giving the impression that Obama is criticizing his former vice president, now a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. But not only are the words not about Biden, the quotation is not from Obama. He was reading a quote from a character in his book called “Smitty the Barber.”

The ad is running in several markets in South Carolina, whose Democratic primary will be held Feb. 29. Biden, the onetime Democratic front-runner whose fortunes have faded, desperately needs a win in the Palmetto State.

On Feb. 26, Obama’s representatives sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Committee to Defend the President demanding that it take down the ads.

“[T]his unauthorized use of President Obama’s name, image, likeness, voice and book passage is clearly intended to mislead the target audience of the ad into believing that the passage from the audiobook is a statement that was made by President Obama during his presidency, when it was in fact a statement made by a barber in a completely different context more than 20 years ago,” the letter from the law firm Perkins Coie said. 

Ted Harvey, chairman of the Committee to Defend the President, defended the ad.

“The Committee has a long history of taking on Joe Biden, beyond Nevada and South Carolina,” he said in a statement. “President Obama made a point in his book about Democrats paying lip-service to the African-American community and we believe his point applies perfectly to Joe Biden.”

Biden “is simply giving lip-service for votes. That’s the point President Obama made in his book, and we have every right to use his own words — in his own voice — in the political forum,” Harvey said.

As the ad plays audio from the former president, Obama and Biden appear on the screen in separate images along with three headlines — each referring to a controversy in Biden’s past.

The first, “JOE BIDEN JOINED SEGREGATIONISTS,” refers to comments the former Delaware senator made last year about how he managed to work with segregationists James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia despite their differences. While the comments were meant to show Biden’s ability to work with those with differing views to get things done, they seemed to some to be too warm an embrace of the segregationists. Biden later apologized.

While the headline refers to an actual incident, it is misleading in that it could be taken to mean that Biden had joined a segregationist group. He did not.

The second headline, “JOE BIDEN WROTE BILL THAT DISPROPORTIONATELY JAILED AFRICAN AMERICANS,” refers to Biden’s role in the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, played a major role in writing the sweeping anti-crime legislation and steering it toward passage.

The bill in recent years has been heavily criticized for contributing to the widespread incarceration of African Americans. But, as we have written, the law has been given too much blame for the phenomenon. The trend toward increased incarceration began in the early 1970s, and quadrupled in the ensuing four decades. However, experts told us the law exacerbated the trend. For example, the bill included a federal “three-strikes” provision, which required mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole for those who commit federal violent felonies if they had two or more previous convictions for violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes.

Biden has pointed out that the legislation was drafted in response to a daunting violent crime problem in the United States at that time.

The third headline says, “JOE BIDEN BLAMED AFRICAN AMERICAN PARENTS FOR INEQUALITY.” This refers to his response to a question at a Democratic debate last September when he was asked what needs to be done to overcome the legacy of slavery.

In a rambling answer, Biden said at one point, “We bring social workers into some and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t know what — they don’t know quite what to do.” He said “very poor” children will hear 4 million fewer words spoken by the time they get to school and, among other things, he unforgettably urged parents to “make sure you have the record player on.”   

The Committee to Defend the President has used the Obama passage before, in an anti-Democrat ad on Facebook last year. It was also used by a pro-Trump group, Great American Alliance, in a Georgia congressional race radio ad in 2017.

Biden has been a particular target of Trump as the campaign general election approaches. In fact, the president’s request for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the former vice president and his son, Hunter, led to his impeachment.