Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Monday issued a forceful rebuttal to President Trump’s claim that the former vice president would preside over a country wracked by disorder and lawlessness, asserting that it was Mr. Trump who had made the country unsafe through his erratic and incendiary governing style.
Against a backdrop of unrest unfolding in multiple cities across the nation, Mr. Biden condemned the violence that has occasionally erupted amid largely peaceful protests over racial injustice, and noted that the chaos is occurring on the president’s watch. He said Mr. Trump had made things worse by stoking division amid a national outcry over racism and police brutality.
Mr. Biden also pressed a broader argument that the president is endangering Americans through his response to the public health and economic challenges the country confronts.
“Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is re-elected?” he said. “We need justice in America. We need safety in America. We’re facing multiple crises — crises that, under Donald Trump, have kept multiplying.’’
The address was Mr. Biden’s most prominent effort yet to deflect the criticism that Mr. Trump and Republicans levied against him at their convention last week, when they distorted his record on crime and policing. And in a fusillade of tweets in the last 48 hours the president suggested Mr. Biden was tolerant of “Anarchists, Thugs & Agitators.”
Speaking at a converted steel mill in Pittsburgh with no audience in attendance, Mr. Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, rejected the suggestion that lawlessness would go unchecked under his leadership. “Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” Mr. Biden, 77, said. “Really? I want a safe America. Safe from Covid, safe from crime and looting, safe from racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops. Let me be crystal clear: safe from four more years of Donald Trump.”
The former vice president sought to refocus the spotlight on Mr. Trump and make the election a referendum on the president’s character and his stewardship of the pandemic. He cast Mr. Trump as a destabilizing force who worsens the most urgent problems facing the nation, from the public health crisis, international affairs and unemployment to issues around police brutality, white supremacy and the unrest over race.
He repeatedly instructed voters to ignore Mr. Trump’s attempts to transfer responsibility to Democrats for the problems unfolding under his administration. “He keeps telling us if he was president you’d feel safe,” Mr. Biden said. “Well, he is president, whether he knows it or not.”
The exchange between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump over public safety, law enforcement and civil rights also represents their first direct clash of the general election, which is now just nine weeks away. It is emerging as a test of whether Mr. Trump can shift voters’ focus away from the coronavirus pandemic and persuade a small slice of undecided white voters to embrace him as a flawed but fierce defender of “law and order,” or whether Mr. Biden can counter that appeal by assailing the president as a provocateur of racial division and social disorder.
Mr. Biden took pains to differentiate between his support for peaceful protests and his opposition to destruction. “Rioting is not protesting,” he said. “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”
He promised he would seek to “lower the temperature in this country,” something he suggested Mr. Trump could not do. “He can’t stop the violence because for years he’s fomented it,” Mr. Biden said.
Much of the Republican argument against Mr. Biden on “law and order” issues is rooted in false claims about his positions. But some Democrats worry that Mr. Biden has not been public enough in laying out his own views. Concerned allies have been on the phone with Mr. Biden’s team in recent days, urging him to get out more.
“I’m worried because I think Donald Trump cannot win the election based on what he has done as president,” Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, said Sunday. “So therefore he has to find some way to make his opposition the issue.”
Mr. Biden’s visit to Pittsburgh, where he also delivered pizza to firefighters, was a departure from a schedule that has largely kept him campaigning from his home in Delaware since the coronavirus shuttered the campaign trail in March. Advisers intensely debated whether he should visit Wisconsin on Monday, ultimately ruling against it, but discussions continue about a possible trip to the state, where last week in Kenosha a white police officer shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, multiple times, sparking outrage, protests and clashes that in some cases turned violent.
Mr. Trump is expected to visit Kenosha on Tuesday, though a growing chorus of Wisconsin officials have urged him to reconsider amid a tense environment on the ground.
A white teenager who has expressed support for Mr. Trump was charged with homicide after two demonstrators were shot to death in Kenosha last week. In Portland, Ore., over the weekend, a man affiliated with a right-wing group was shot and killed as a caravan of Trump supporters drove through the city. The episode prompted tweets from Mr. Trump seeking to pin the blame on the Democrats, part of a barrage of online communication by the president that promoted fringe conspiracy theories.
“He may believe mouthing the words ‘law and order’ makes him strong, but his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows how weak he is,” Mr. Biden said.
Some Democrats think there is more Mr. Biden can do to press his case with voters. Local officials, for instance, have been urging Mr. Biden to visit their states.
Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin and a Democratic National Committee member, said he understood why Mr. Biden had not been traveling but said he would still like to see Mr. Biden meet with both first responders and the Blake family if the pandemic conditions allow. Mr. Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor spoke with the Blake family last week.
“Him coming to Kenosha just to see what’s happening, talking to first responders — my people — talking to the family, I know people would like it,” Mr. Mitchell said. “I would like it.”
Other Democrats, including political activists, described a delicate balancing act Mr. Biden must manage as he condemns rioting but seeks to show support for peaceful protesters, who enjoy broad backing from the base of the Democratic Party.
“He’s got to be measured because he can’t look like he’s falling into the same rhetoric of identifying the protesters as violent,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader. “And if he says a lot more, does he then alienate those of us that have been doing the nonviolent marching, that you’re painting us all with a broad brush?”
Mr. Biden’s campaign is struggling with a challenge that has lingered over presidential campaigns for decades: when to ignore attacks, and when to respond. Other candidates have ignored attacks that struck them as ungrounded, to their peril. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, for instance, initially did not respond to attacks from a political action committee challenging the truth of his assertions about his service in Vietnam.
There is some early evidence that the chaos has been problematic for Democrats among some voters who are most focused on protests.
Stephen Johnson, 44, a financial analyst from Kenosha who voted third-party in 2016, was leaning toward supporting Mr. Biden earlier in the campaign. But now he sees Democratic state and local leaders around the country as “ineffectual” in responding to the unrest that has sometimes veered into rioting, he said, and has decided he will reluctantly support Mr. Trump.
“I believe that Biden does not have the stomach to stand up to those that are openly advocating Marxism through terror,” Mr. Johnson said. “And I’m sorry, I need someone who can.”
In Michigan, the rioting that has rocked some cities across the nation has left Angela Daniels, 49, anxious and unsettled, too, though she is inclined toward the opposite political conclusion.
“We need stability and we don’t have that right now,” said Ms. Daniels, a psychotherapist from Southfield, a Detroit suburb. “That’s why I tend to lean toward Biden.”
As Mr. Trump increasingly uses the protests as a wedge issue, portraying demonstrators as lawless and dangerous, election analysts in both parties are taking a second look at a Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters that came out earlier this month. The share of Wisconsin voters expressing support for the protest movement that arose after George Floyd’s death dropped to 48 percent, from 61 percent in June.
Still, most Wisconsin voters said they didn’t like Mr. Trump’s handling of the protests. Fifty-eight disapproved, while just 32 percent approved, the poll showed. And Mr. Trump saw no improvement in his favorability rating after the Republican National Convention, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll released on Sunday.
Mr. Biden, for his part, who for years fashioned himself as a “tough on crime” Democrat, won the Democratic primary as an unapologetic moderate, defeating his democratic socialist opponent, Bernie Sanders. All summer and throughout their convention, Republicans sought to paint Mr. Biden as both soft on crime and overly punitive, a strategy that has yet to show it can define the Democrat to Mr. Trump’s advantage.
“They’ve been throwing all kinds of stuff at Joe Biden from the beginning,” said Representative Dina Titus, Democrat of Nevada. “It’s just a big, muddled message.”
Kathleen Gray, Thomas Kaplan, Jonathan Martin, Adam Nagourney and Giovanni Russonello contributed reporting.