For many months, the polls backed him up. The former vice president was presumed to have the edge over a field of less familiar Democratic contenders on the magical quality of “electability.”
But his uneven performance has undercut Biden’s claim to being The One that Democrats are looking for. That premise is likely to become even more implausible if Biden gets drubbed in Tuesday’s primary as badly as he did in last week’s Iowa caucuses.
His backward-looking, disjointed and self-referential stump speeches don’t help.
Biden recites the milestones of his three dozen years in the Senate, wraps himself in the accomplishments of the Obama administration, boasts of the world leaders he calls by their first names. He recounts gauzy memories of the bipartisan deals he used to strike, in a faraway era before Trump and the Republicans launched their unfounded smear campaigns about his role in Ukraine.
In short, Biden sounds like a man whose time has passed. Many in the modest-sized crowds that he draws are dismayed. After he spoke on the same stage as the other Democratic candidates at a state Democratic Party dinner on Saturday night, one undecided voter told me: “Joe needs to retire.” This has become a common refrain, even among people who admire and respect Biden.
But then there is the Biden you see mostly on the rope line.
As soon as the sound on his mic is turned off, he dives toward the area where those who remain behind are standing to shake his hand or take a selfie.
At those moments, Biden is transformed. He lingers with anyone who wants to tell him a story, even as maintenance workers start dismantling his stage and folding up chairs. People light up in his presence. Perhaps because of the personal suffering he has endured, Biden seems to have a kind of radar that draws him to people who are starving for solace and reassurance, and they to him.
On the stump, he is at his most compelling when he stops talking about himself and starts telling the stories of the people he has met.
Some of them have crossed Biden’s path here in New Hampshire: the security guard mourning the death of her father and fearful of the test that grief is putting on her 30 years of sobriety; the man who confided he has just lost his job and is afraid to tell his family; the woman who fled the man who beat her and ended up living on the street; the line of people standing in 22-degree temperatures at a downtown food bank, some of them children wearing no gloves.
This is the better Biden, embracing personal vulnerability over electoral invincibility. He is perhaps the most authentic tribune of empathy in public life today — and the starkest contrast imaginable from the man who sits in the Oval Office.
“We have a president who has not an ounce of empathy in his body,” Biden said at a campaign stop Sunday in the oceanside town of Hampton. “I don’t think he can connect in any way. It’s not about him being a Republican. There’s just simply no empathy. What in God’s name are we doing?”
Biden began his campaign last April by summoning the country to decency. He made his announcement in a video that opened on images of the violent 2017 march by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and Trump’s assertion that there had been “very fine people” protesting on both sides.
“With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said. “And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
At the time, there were 20 Democratic candidates in the race. Alone among them, Biden seemed to promise a campaign that would take the argument directly to Trump’s character. But given the thirst in the party to defeat the president, Biden’s campaign took a more tactical turn.
As his prospects dim, Biden has been turning back to character as the issue that could define the race. At a CNN town hall last week, he gave a moving account of his struggle with stuttering and talked of how he counsels young people who suffer from it not to let that disability define them.
Electability can be a mirage, one that has the potential to vanish once people start voting. Character endures. Showing voters more of the Biden that most never get to see on the rope line might not have propelled him to success in the early states. But it might have been the straighter — if longer — path.