Nearly a year after Biden was accused of engaging in too-familiar touching, especially with women, he remains a tactile politician, side-hugging people for pictures, grasping hands across rope lines, occasionally glowering in the face of critics, telling them “look into my eyes” to see how earnest he is about addressing climate change.
If Biden’s physical style has not diminished in the wake of a controversy that threatened his presidential bid before it started, the outrage seems to have largely evaporated. That is especially true for those tromping through snow and freezing temperatures in Iowa during Biden’s final sprint to the nation’s first caucuses. In some ways his physical nature has even emerged as a strength for him as he has jumped into the retail politicking required for the Iowa caucuses.
“We’re both just down-home people, and that’s how we show affection,” Smith, who is in her 70s, said in an interview shortly after her Biden hug. “I understand there’s a ‘Me Too’ movement, but [the hug was] just a sign of affection. Joe Biden is my friend.”
The initial complaint, coming as Biden was poised to announce his presidential run, was explosive and touched a nerve with many women amid a broader national debate over the conduct of powerful men. Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state legislator, accused Biden of inappropriately touching and kissing her hair without her consent as he helped her campaign for lieutenant governor in 2014.
After the fallout, Biden recorded a two-minute video that stopped short of apologizing but promised change. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying, and I understand it,” Biden said. “I’ll be much more mindful. That’s my responsibility, and I’ll meet it.”
Today, Biden remains at the top of polls. Biden still kisses women’s hands, puts his hands on their shoulders, touches his forehead to theirs, nestles his nose against their head. With men, it’s often an embrace. This virtually always appears to be welcomed by his supporters, and often the contact is initiated by them.
A few weeks ago in Des Moines, members of a Baptist church laid hands on Biden while a deaconess grasped his wrists and prayed that he receive godly wisdom. On Thursday, a woman introduced Biden to her dog, then spent several seconds wiping its fur off Biden’s suit.
At another recent Iowa stop, an elderly voter was overcome when Biden hugged and kissed her, sitting down to catch her breath, as a groupie might after meeting a rock star. Still, asked about her preference in the Democratic field, the woman said she was considering Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former South Bend., Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.
It is more complicated when an exchange is less than friendly. At an event in Iowa on Tuesday, an activist named Ed Fallon approached Biden to challenge his position on gas pipelines. Biden pushed Fallon’s chest and grabbed his coat, telling him to “go vote for someone else.”
Fallon, a Tom Steyer supporter and former state legislator, is part of a group called Bold Iowa, which has questioned several of the candidates on climate change. “We’re pretty assertive, in an ‘Iowa nice’ kind of way, in putting our ideas about climate change out there,” Fallon said in an interview.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), when approached by Fallon, took issue with his assertions, he said, while Klobuchar walked away. Biden was the only candidate who got physical with him.
“I don’t mind the clash of ideas, but he’s gone and taken it to a whole new level,” Fallon said. “It’s a problem for Joe Biden, and it’s a problem for the Democrats if they nominate him for president.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment for this article.
The issue is especially resonant for a politician who is known for his personal, homespun style of campaigning, espousing Biden family wisdom and sharing his grief and hugs with people who come to his events. Daily, he tells voters that “character is on the ballot,” and he frequently touts his championing of the Violence Against Women Act. Biden does not shy away from talking of the tragic deaths in his family, and he offers words of sympathy to those in the audience who have also suffered.
Biden’s supporters often say they like him because he seems genuine, and for now they appear to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. In Davenport, Iowa, on Tuesday, Biden quipped that two sisters — 10 and 7 — must be bored sitting through his stump speech, a comment he often makes when he spots children in the audience.
“What a thing to do to a beautiful young woman,” Biden said. “I owe you an ice cream or something.”
Later, he mentioned the girls again as he talked about the trajectory of the country. “We’ve got to set things straight so these beautiful young girls grow up in a world that’s not trending the way it is,” he said. Later, he grabbed one girl’s hand after snapping a selfie with her family.
Rose Boehle, the grandmother of the Davenport girls and a Biden supporter, said she had no problem with how the former vice president interacted with her granddaughters. She only wished that Biden had not offered the girls ice cream, since they’d had enough that day.
“The ‘Me Too’ movement . . . changed how it looks,” Boehle said. “People have to be careful about who they touch and how they touch — I understand that. But what is wrong with showing a little compassion and caring toward someone?”