The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden says 10-15% of the nation is ‘just not very good people’

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, speaks on Tuesday about President Trump’s response to civil unrest across the country. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Thursday night that about “10 to 15 percent” of people are “just not very good people,” but they account for a small minority in a country that is overwhelmingly virtuous.

“Do we really think this is as good as we can be as a nation?” Biden said. “I don’t think the vast majority of people think that. There are probably anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the people out there that are just not very good people. But that’s not who we are. The vast majority of people are decent. We have to appeal to that.”

His comments, which drew criticism from allies of President Trump on Friday, came in a virtual town hall with young Americans that was hosted by his campaign and joined by the actor Don Cheadle. The former vice president fielded questions from several young African Americans. The discussion addressed issues of race and police violence.

The Fix’s Eugene Scott breaks down how presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has reacted to the death of George Floyd. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden began his remarks with a mention of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died on May 25 after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck as he cried out that he could not breathe. Biden said that as a white man, he cannot fully understand what it is like to be a black man facing danger in encounters with law enforcement. He called the moment a “wake-up call” to address “systemic racism.”

Later, one man posed a question to Biden: If it is true that you can’t lead people if you don’t love people, how would he lead differently as a president, specifically for black Americans?

“Because I love people,” Biden responded. A few minutes later, he alluded to President Trump.

“The words of a president matter, no matter who the president is,” Biden said. He added, “How many of your friends do you know who have children, who when the president comes on there, they pull them away from the TV?”

Repeating a declaration he has used in recent days, Biden said, “Hate didn’t begin with Donald Trump. It’s not going to end with him.” After saying that he would take responsibility for his actions as president and address major problems, Biden posed the question of whether the nation was as good as it could be.

Republicans pounced on Biden.

“Who is he including in that?” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. on Friday. “Christians who want to go to church? Small biz owners trying to save their companies? Because something tells me, he’s not talking about the looters burning down communities!”

Past nominees have stoked controversy with blanket descriptions of people.

In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney told donors at a private fundraiser that there were “47 percent” of voters determined to support President Barack Obama, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.” After the remarks were made public, Romney faced widespread criticism.

In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton claimed that half of Donald Trump’s supporters fit into a “basket of deplorables.” After backlash, Clinton said she regretted her words.

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale sought to liken Clinton’s words to Biden’s. “Here we go again with THE DEPLORABLES!” he wrote Friday on Twitter, adding that Biden “just can’t stop himself from judging everyone around him.”

As a candidate and throughout his presidency, Trump has frequently used divisive rhetoric, including anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim comments, and also praised some participants in a deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. He has often painted a dark picture of the country, falsely portraying it as overrun by crime, violence and malevolence.

On Friday, the president drew criticism when he invoked Floyd, the dead Minneapolis man, as he touted new unemployment numbers at the White House.

“Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying this a great thing that’s happening for our country,” Trump said. “There’s a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody.”

Biden, by contrast, has frequently expressed optimism about the country’s future, even as it confronts what he has described as a difficult moment.

“The American people at heart are decent, honorable people,” Biden said at a fundraiser earlier Thursday.