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Opinion Joe Biden and the empathy gap

Former vice president Joe Biden departs an event in Lancaster, Pa., on Thursday. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Joe Biden gave a speech on Thursday in which he tore into President Trump over the legal brief his lawyers are expected to file in support of a lawsuit that would destroy the Affordable Care Act. Biden is getting attention for ripping Trump’s “whining and self pity” about criticism he’s endured the pandemic.

That’s lively stuff. But the more significant moment might have been when the presumptive Democratic nominee offered what may be the longest soliloquy yet in this campaign to the emotional hardships countless Americans are enduring due to the constraints of social distancing.

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Biden said bluntly that we face a long struggle with coronavirus, and that we’ll have to “do both the simple things and the hard things to keep our families and everybody safe, to reopen our economy” and “put the pandemic behind us.” He then said this about mask-wearing and social distancing:

I know as Americans, it’s not something we’re used to. But it matters. All the evidence from all over the world tells us it just might be the single most effective thing we can do. We’re going to have to socially distance, like we are here today.
It’s not easy. It seems so strange to us. Not as Americans, but as human beings. We’re built to talk, to laugh, to hug, to gather with other people. I know I am, and I know you are. But for now, we’re going to have to socially distance. It matters.
We’re going to have to find a way to keep our economy running as we bring the number of cases down. The president wants us to believe there’s a choice between the economy and public health. Amazingly, he still hasn’t grasped the most basic fact of this crisis: To fix the economy, we have to get control over the virus.

Last month, when many lamented that Biden was stuck broadcasting from his basement, we suggested it might actually play well for him, because it showed Biden enduring in solidarity what so many other Americans were coping with at the time, while Trump resumed travel without masks or social distancing.

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The Biden camp, we reported, was operating from the premise that Biden could show voters how a president should conduct himself amid such a trying crisis, by setting an example for conduct — at the time, remaining on lockdown — that, while emotionally grueling, would ultimately benefit us all.

This latest discussion of the hardships of social distancing seems like a continuation of that basic bet. Indeed, after Biden finished his speech, he put on his mask before heading offstage — a moment that seemed all about drawing this deeper contrast.

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A Biden adviser told me he’s trying to strike a balance, emphasizing “the most effective ways to keep families safe and healthy” while also letting people know “on a human level” that “he personally understands how difficult some of those behaviors and strategies can be.”

Now contrast that with the bet that Trump has made — openly and proudly. Trump almost never wears a mask at public appearances — which is facilitated by special access to testing that he and his top advisers enjoy. He held a massive rally in Tulsa, even as his campaign had attendees sign a waiver in case they got sick.

When Trump discovered to his horror that the rally was sparsely attended, it demonstrated that his magical reality-warping powers couldn’t persuade even his own supporters that coronavirus doesn’t pose a threat when people are in close proximity without masks and social distancing.

This week’s New York Times/Siena College poll found that 54 percent of American voters say they always wear a mask when they expect to be close to others, while another 22 percent say they usually do, and only 22 percent say they rarely or never do.

Those numbers are likely an overstatement; surely many people tell pollsters they wear masks while leaving the mask at home here and there. But, plainly, majorities recognize that these precautions are the right thing to do, and don’t subscribe to the ideology — neo-Social Darwinism, dumbed-down dorm-room libertarianism, stylized pseudo-intellectual anti-science conservatism, whatever you call it — driving the supposed rebellion against mask-wearing, which continues to be a fringe position.

Standing vocally for wearing masks sends an important signal, too. As Zeynep Tufekci noted, masks indicate “solidarity” amid a time that is not “business as usual,” a recognition that crisis moments like this one “require us to change our behavior,” but “collectively,” which means that “knowing our fellow citizens are on board is important.”

It’s important because this is hard. And that’s why it’s also important for our leaders to be on board with it, while recognizing and speaking to the hardships it imposes.

Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty, and how our most venerated monuments can remind us of where America falls short. (Video: The Washington Post)

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