Thanks anyway, Bobby: In North Philly, Kennedy family endorses Biden for 2024 over one of their own

Joe Biden received the endorsement of the Kennedy family at large in Philadelphia on Thursday.

Listen 1:17
President Joe Biden speaks alongside the Kennedy family

President Joe Biden speaks as members of the Kennedy family, from second left, Maxwell Kennedy Sr., Joe Kennedy III, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kerry Kennedy, Rory Kennedy and Christopher Kennedy listen at a campaign event, Thursday, April 18, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Elections 2024: Your voter game plan

Capping off a three-day tour of the state, Joe Biden made his appearance at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in North Philly, where he accepted the endorsement of the Kennedy family at large.

The support from the Kennedys is an apparent effort to blunt the impact of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s third-party candidacy. The Biden campaign is likely concerned that Kennedy Jr. will peel off support, which will benefit Donald Trump.

That seemed apparent in the comments made by Kerry Kennedy, who introduced the president. Kennedy is the daughter of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and niece of former President John F. Kennedy and sister of Kennedy Jr.

“I can only imagine how Donald Trump’s outrageous lies and behavior would have horrified my father, Robert F. Kennedy, who proudly served as Attorney General of the United States and honored his pledge to uphold the law and protect the country,” she said. “Daddy stood for equal justice, human rights and freedom from want and fear, just as President Biden does today.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Several other members of the Kennedy clan attended the event to show their support, including RFK’s daughter Rory Kennedy and RFK’s grandson Joe Kennedy III. They were joined by Philadelphia Civil Rights Leader John White Jr., who spoke about his own connection to the Kennedy family, including how he was introduced to his late wife by Ted Kennedy.

Biden took the stage, flanked by six members of the Kennedy clan and said, “It’s an extraordinary honor to receive an endorsement from the Kennedy family.”

He went on to recount how he listened to Robert F. Kennedy campaign after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

“I’d listened to him many times, your dad Bobby Kennedy, standing in the back of a truck in Indianapolis asking for peace and quoting one of his favorite Greek poets,” Biden recalled. “He said, and I quote, ‘Even in our sleep, our pain, which you cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until our own despair — in our own despair against our will comes wisdom.’”

Robert F. Kennedy would himself be assassinated a couple months later.

Following the endorsement event, President Biden joined Joe Kennedy III, who currently serves as Biden’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, and local supporters at a campaign door-knocking and phone bank training.

There, Joe Kennedy introduced Biden, telling the volunteers, “You got a dad, you got a brother, you got a public servant before us that know what it means to lead with a heart on the sleeve.”

Joe Biden and Joe Kennedy III
Joe Kennedy III speaks to Biden campaign volunteers as the president looks on. (Carmen Russell-Sluchansky/WHYY News)

Biden “knows that this moment isn’t actually about him, it’s about our country,” he said. “It’s about [the] choice that we make now that Philadelphia and Pennsylvania will get to make in such a big, bold way. And that starts with a knock on the door. It starts with a phone call. It starts with the postcard. It starts with listening to a neighbor and asking a question about what concerns them and how we can help and what we together can do to make sure that Joe Biden is going to be there for us, because he’s with us.”

Biden then told the room that Pennsylvania would have a key role to play in the election and that Trump was dedicated to overturning Biden’s key legislative successes.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“He’s committed to be opposed to — not just figuratively, literally — everything you’ve helped me get done,” he said. “So what you’re doing here is bigger than me, bigger than you, bigger than all of us combined. It’s about what kind of country our kids are going to live in. Not because I’m running, not Joe Biden, I mean that sincerely. Not because of me, but because of the option.”

Joe Biden
Joe Biden addresses volunteers at a campaign training event at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in North Philly. (Carmen Russell-Sluchansky/WHYY News)

The Kennedys have been a fixture in Democratic politics for most of the last several decades, with at least one Kennedy serving in a federal elected office between 1947 and 2011, the pinnacle of that being John F. Kennedy’s election to president in 1963. Biden was a senior in high school that year and has often cited JFK as one of his inspirations throughout his political career. Biden is the second Catholic to serve as president, with Kennedy being the first.

Biden also served alongside the “Liberal Lion” of the Senate, Ted Kennedy. However, the memory of Ted Kennedy’s effort to primary President Jimmy Carter in 1979 is widely accepted as one reason the incumbent president lost to the Republican nominee, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, who went on to serve two terms in the White House.

The question is now whether Robert Kennedy Jr.’s third-party run will similarly spoil Biden’s chance of reelection.

Given the tightness of the race and judging by recent polling, it’s a valid concern. For example, in a recent CNN poll, in a head-to-head matchup between Biden and Trump among Pennsylvania voters, the two are in an even tie. However, adding a third party shifts the odds by two points in the Republican candidate’s favor, with RFK Jr. walking away with 16% of the vote and Trump with the state’s coveted 19 electoral votes.

Biden won Pennsylvania with just over 1% of the vote in 2020.

RFK Jr.’s positions read much like a standard Democratic Party platform. An environmental lawyer for more than 20 years, he advocates for green policies such as more sustainable agriculture and energy production practices. He wants to increase the national minimum wage, expand free child care programs, and go after companies that illegally bust up unions. He also favors increasing opportunities for immigrants to enter the country legally, calling the southern U.S. border a “humanitarian crisis.”

However, he has previously questioned anti-COVID practices and linked vaccines to autism, key issues that separate him from the Democratic Party and even his own family. His positions on health care, including reproductive rights, have also been somewhat amorphous.

Dr. David Barrett, professor of political science at Villanova University, says that those numbers may not last as people pay closer attention to the election.

“I think that some of the people supporting RFK Jr. are not really familiar with his story and all about the anti-vax and history that he has and all that,” he told WHYY News. “Some of his positions are actually closer to Trump than they are to Biden, so I think the numbers will go down for him, but even if a candidate takes away one or 2% from a major party candidate, that can be enough to affect an election.”

Since many Kennedy Jr. supporters may just be voting based on the name alone, Barrett noted that a Kennedy family endorsement should change some minds.

“It will have [an] effect if this continues to be publicized,” said Barrett, whose books include “Blind Over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis” and “The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy.”

“I think it will be very key in those last couple of weeks for the election in November to publicize that the Kennedy family has said that though they love their brother or their relative, if not all siblings, that they think he has done a lot of harm with his anti-vaccine advocacy and with this campaign.”

The family members endorsing Biden also include Rory Kennedy, Joe Kennedy II, Beth Kennedy, Christopher Kennedy, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, Vicki Strauss Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kerry Kennedy Meltzer, Max Meltzer, Ted Kennedy Jr., Stephen Kennedy Smith, Peter McKelvy, and Rebeca McKelvy.

Caroline Kennedy, who was not present, currently serves as United States Ambassador to Australia.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal