The Slatest

Joe Biden’s Condescending “Social Norms” Video Will Easily Appease His Base

Biden raises his arm, holding a phone, to take a selfie in a crowd of people.
Joe Biden using his hands to take what the kids call a “selfie” (Oct. 20, 2018, Las Vegas). Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, former Vice President Joe Biden released a video on Twitter after at least four women came forward to say he touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable. Biden is weighing a run for president, and though the reports don’t seem severe enough to kill his likely campaign before it begins, he’s been forced to defend himself this week instead of priming voters for a positive case for a Biden presidency. His video attempts to address the bubbling pre-campaign crisis head on.

Biden’s previous response had been limited to a short statement he’d handed out following each new story. “In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support, and comfort,” that statement said. “And not once—never—did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested that I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”

Wednesday’s video didn’t significantly depart from that “hey, I’m just like this” defense. And it’s unlikely to convince many of those who have criticized Biden for his behavior that Uncle Joe should be forgiven for bringing creepy and inappropriate invasions of personal space that were condoned in his youth into 21st century politics. But the video serves its purpose brilliantly. It was written and filmed for his base, the disproportionately older Democrats who might identify more with a well-meaning man caught in the crossfire of fast-changing social norms than with the people trying to change them.

A video was always the right medium for this kind of response from Biden. His famous charisma, warmth, and grandfatherly folksiness are far more valuable than any well-worded statement could be. “I’ll always be direct with you,” Biden promises at the start of the clip. The former senator from Delaware goes on to repeat a few emotional phrases and pause convincingly—as if trying to find the right words instead of reading off a script—virtually guaranteeing that many viewers will believe him.

The solemn-yet-casual tone of the video is that of a befuddled, beleaguered, determined-to-love-you relative being forced to apologize (though Biden does not) for embarrassing his grandchildren by hugging them in front of their friends. “In my career, I’ve always tried to make a human connection,” he says. “That’s my responsibility, I think. I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, ‘You can do this.’ Whether they’re women, men, young, old. It’s the way I’ve always been.” This part is a clever bit of obfuscation. No men have yet accused Biden of touching them without their consent in patronizing or demeaning ways.

The misdirection doesn’t end there. He also shouts out the “scores, if not hundreds” of people who have come to him “for solace and comfort” after a tragic event, since Biden has faced more than his share of personal tragedy. But none of the women who’ve said Biden touched them inappropriately and without consent was dealing with tragedy. The first, Lucy Flores, was about to go onstage at a rally for her own campaign for Nevada lieutenant governor. Others met him at nontragic fundraisers or political events. “I’ve never thought of politics as cold and antiseptic—I’ve thought of it as connecting with people,” Biden says in the segment. He’s attempting to argue that the thing people are criticizing him for is actually a public good: a humane approach to politics, grounded in empathy. But empathy is exactly what Biden has shown himself to be lacking when he’s acted this way. He’s unwilling, or unable, to take women’s preferences and specific circumstances into account when deciding whether to treat them like a constituent seeking a comforting smooch or a colleague for whom a handshake would be appropriate.

Biden’s appeal to his skewing-old fan base goes from subtext to text when he rolls his eyes about how “now, it’s all about taking selfies together” when he meets people. This bemused commentary on contemporary etiquette rolls directly into a line about how “social norms have begun to change … and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset.” Yes, the popularity of the front-facing smartphone camera has risen in inverse proportion to kissing unsuspecting women’s heads. Biden supporters, for whom his old-school handsiness is part of his charm, will undoubtedly shake their heads at the way he’s forced to all-but-apologize for doing something men have been doing—and women haven’t been complaining about!—for generations. He stops short of saying that a #MeToo movement that implicates the shoulder squeezes of a chivalrous older gentleman has gone too far, but you can practically hear his fans shouting it in the background.

If and when Biden formally enters the Democratic presidential field, it will be with an enormous advantage. He has the most name recognition and highest favorability ratings of anyone in the game, a rock-solid association with an extremely popular ex-president, and the demographic qualities required to convince some voters he can beat Donald Trump. In the primary, he doesn’t have to convince progressive young Democrats that he’s sorry he’s repeatedly touched women inappropriately, or that he knows it’s wrong and he’s committed to changing. They wouldn’t have voted for him anyway.

He only has to show the people who already love him that he can respond to criticism with grace and shuffle, however clumsily, in rough sync with the beat of contemporary gender politics. At the same time, his not-so-subtle eye rolls and refusal to apologize tell those supporters that he won’t be beaten into submission by overzealous #MeToo supporters. It’s hard to say which part they’ll like better.