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Joe Biden’s campaign, summed up in one simple gesture

Former second lady Jill Biden pulled her husband, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, away from reporters before departing for Miami on Oct. 5. (Video: Reuters)

Former vice president Joe Biden was standing on the tarmac Monday chatting with reporters at New Castle County Airport before boarding his campaign plane for Miami. Biden was wearing a mask and so were the journalists, but the plane’s engine was whirring and as he was answering questions about whether he would participate in the upcoming scheduled debate, he began to drift from socially distanced range into normal speaking range. And so, with no fanfare but unmistakable firmness, Jill Biden approached her husband from behind, reminded him of proper spacing and physically moved him several paces back.

Biden apologized for his spatial indiscretion and then carried on with his thoughts about the importance of following the science in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

An entire campaign was summed up in that simple gesture — and by Biden’s response to it.

The Democratic presidential candidate spent the early months of the pandemic running a mostly digital campaign from his home in Delaware and now that he has returned to in-person salesmanship, he has been steadfast in doing so only in front of small, socially distanced audiences. There are so few people in the room with him that his events have an eerie quiet that’s unheard of for someone leading in national polls. He introduced his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris, in front of an audience that consisted of journalists, who rewarded his enthusiastic accounting of her qualifications with silence. After accepting his party’s nomination, he celebrated with a fireworks display in front of a parking lot full of supporters cheering from their cars.

Biden and Harris proved it doesn’t take a rally to deliver a big message

Biden participated in a drive-in town hall with CNN and just recently sat through an outdoor question-and-answer session with voters on NBC that had him battling wind and the white noise of traffic to hear them. But he has persevered. He has adapted to deal with the facts rather than trying to bend the facts to his will.

Biden has not been perfect in his masking and distancing. He’s tugged his mask down during conversations to be clearly understood. And, he’s leaned in a little too far when others have spoken to him. But he has made the effort to be mindful and cautious while his opponent has not only refused to try but has chest-thumped about that refusal.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden addressed voters at an NBC town hall in Miami on Oct. 5. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

After his wife stepped in to pull him back into safer territory, Biden said, “I’m sorry.” His words could be read as a statement of regret to the assembled reporters for violating the new rules of social engagement, for perhaps, putting them at risk. But even more, his apology recognized the concerns of his wife. It acknowledged that a small act can have enormous consequences — not just for him but for others as well. His words made clear that he understood that no matter how VIP he might be, he is not an island. And sometimes, causing someone to worry can be as agonizing for them as any physical pain.

That is not to say that Biden doesn’t have all the stubbornness or hubris that’s embedded in the genetic code alongside political ambition. Anyone who runs for president has an outsize ego. And he retains the ability to gloss over votes and policies from his past that distress some skittish supporters. Still, regret is in his vocabulary. It’s right there next to empathy. And this is a nation that needs a leader who can coach it through remorse, fear and no small amount of grief.

For anyone who enters the presidential arena, it’s hard not to worry about the dangers. Certainly their loved ones do. Candidates have been killed and so have commanders in chief. Jill Biden has proved she’s a fierce guardian of her husband — able to keep a watchful eye on those around him while he conducts retail politics. On more than one occasion, she has used her body to fend off protesters who have gotten too close. Now she’s doing her best to body-block a virus. There was visceral emotion and power in her tugging on his arms. She wasn’t leading him or imploring him. She moved him. And in response, he respected her enough — trusted her enough, understood her concerns enough — to allow himself to be moved.

In that consequential moment, Biden is flanked by security in their blue suits and their tie clips. They’re standing on alert, but it’s Jill Biden who steps in. She’s the one standing guard against this new threat that may or may not be present, that can’t be sniffed out by a K-9 team or revealed with a metal detector. There’s intimacy in her gesture, which happens so publicly but is shared by only two people. It is a particular sort of public display of affection. And it is a reminder that even within the candidate’s protective bubble there’s an even more secure space.

Biden has given close attention to the topics of health care and racial justice as he’s campaigned. But mostly, he’s been talking about the pandemic and how he would handle it, how he would use science as his guiding light. His wife’s gesture is a reminder of his promise. He’s the candidate in the mask — the one moved by science, compassion and respect.