On Wednesday, former vice president Joe Biden stared straight into a camera and promised his supporters something: He’ll do better. He gets that his touchy-feely ways have made some women uncomfortable, and in the #MeToo era, that’s not acceptable.
But two days later, there are real questions about whether Biden gets it. While addressing union workers Friday, he made two jokes that seemed to belittle the women who accused him of touching them in uncomfortable and inappropriate ways.
Shortly after getting onstage Friday, Biden hugged International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Lonnie Stephenson, then said, “I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie.” The crowd laughed; Biden glowed.
Biden made the same joke a second time, this time using one of the children he invited onstage.
“You guys can sit on the edge. I don’t want you to have to stand,” he said, pulling a boy closer to him. “By the way, he gave me permission to touch him,” he said of the boy.
It was an ugly moment. Instead of treating the allegations seriously, as he promised he would, Biden made light of them. He compared these women feeling “shame” and being “embarrassed” when he kissed the back of their heads or pressed his forehead against theirs to a much more benign hand on the shoulder of a man, in full view of the public. The message Biden seemed to broadcast: These women are making a big deal out of nothing.
His first accuser, Nevada politician Lucy Flores, said as much in response to his jokes.
Biden again demonstrated a lack of understanding after his speech, telling reporters: “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more. I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything I have ever done. I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally, to a man or a woman.”
Friday’s Biden is classic Biden — an act-from-the-gut guy who says what he feels and racks up the gaffes in the process. As my colleague Aaron Blake pointed out, Biden didn’t even apologize Wednesday in the video he released. He framed himself as the victim of changing social norms.
But he did play to his strengths in that video: He reminded people he’s folksy, he’s real, he’s not a politician. It won over some advocates, such as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, an influencer in the Democratic Party and a potential presidential candidate herself. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also backed Biden.
The video, though, was a rehearsed moment. The real test was how Biden would act later, when “the setting is not as controlled,” as progressive activist Rebecca Katz told Politico. That test came Friday. And Biden failed it.
It’s a microcosm of why Biden has struggled in the past to run for president, and he is going to have trouble putting this controversy behind him as he launches another bid. Biden seems to think he’s the best person for the job because he is who he is. He has no intention of changing that.
That should make Biden supporters worried about his ability to navigate an even trickier political landscape in 2020.