Yet the segment was a reminder of one of the qualities that most starkly separates Biden from President Trump: The former vice president seems to genuinely like people, and not only for what they can do for him. That’s an image most normal politicians try to project, but the Democratic convention is taking Biden’s fondness for his fellow citizens further and reminding viewers that there’s a lot for us to like about each other, too. This is a vital message for a candidate and a party who hope not just to win an election but to unify the country enough to govern it effectively.
Biden’s searing experiences with grief — first, the death of his wife and baby daughter, and later, the death of his son Beau — have been crucial to the case he is making to voters, especially in the middle of a devastating pandemic. But there’s a difference between simply understanding the depth of the public’s mourning for what vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris described as a loss of life, certainty and normality, and wanting to be there with other people, in good times and in bad.
A consistent thread throughout the convention has been Biden’s desire to be present and to help others. Former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords pledged that “he was there for me” after she was shot in January 2011 and during her ongoing recovery, and that “he’ll be there for you, too.” Hillary Clinton told us that Biden has chosen a running mate who shares that quality, noting Harris’s dedication to Tyrone Gayle, her former press secretary, before he died of cancer in 2018 at age 30.
It’s difficult to imagine Trump showing such sustained care for or even interest in his colleagues, much less for the families of the nearly 170,000 of his constituents who have died of covid-19 on his watch.
But it’s also become near-impossible to believe that Trump takes any real pleasure in getting to know others, or in any interaction with ordinary people that doesn’t involve being the object of adulation. Vice President Pence may toady up to the man he enables, but he seems unlikely to describe Trump as a brother, the word former president Barack Obama used for Biden on Wednesday.
Friendliness and liking other people sound like anodyne qualities, but they are preconditions for empathy, one of the most powerful forces in politics. It’s the characteristic that enables a politician to not merely listen, but to hear and to learn. The convention programming showed Biden doing that on the first night of programming this week as he sat down a group of racial-justice advocates over Zoom, and again on Wednesday during a flashback to the hearings that informed the Violence Against Women Act.
But Biden isn’t the only person whose likability the Democratic convention has emphasized so far.
The roll call of the states that formed a crucial part of Tuesday night’s programming worked not simply because it pointed out the party and the country’s diversity, but because it presented that variety as a charming point of pride. From Rhode Island’s viral calamari; to the humor and flower crowns donned by the delegates from the Northern Mariana Islands; to what my colleague Alexandra Petri described as the “strong pageant energy” of the Tennessee salute to the suffragists, the roll call was a welcome and personable travelogue to those of us stuck at home. After six months of quarantine, who doesn’t want to pack a bag and check in to state Rep. Craig Hickman’s Maine bed-and-breakfast?
Wednesday’s pitch for us to like each other was more somber, but the point was still clear. If immigrants are an abstraction to you, the convention suggested, meet Silvia Sanchez, who carried her daughter Jessica, who has spina bifida, in her arms across a river and over the border into the United States so she would have a chance to survive and thrive. If you think climate change activists want to inconvenience the rest of us for their own ideals, meet a farmer trying to keep his family business alive in the face of growing seasons gone haywire.
The animosity so many Americans feel for each other or believe others feel toward them has been one of the defining forces in politics in recent years. To win the 2020 election, Joe Biden doesn’t have to convince voters to like him, exactly, just to hate him less than the current president. But to govern successfully, Biden will have to find some way to improve the relationships between voters of different parties and the politicians who represent them. Genuine friendliness might be a place to start.
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