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The problem with Joe Biden’s hands

Reuters/Yuri Gripas
From another time.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This post has been updated on Apr. 3, 5 pm. 

At 76, Joe Biden is considering a third run for US president. If he went ahead and won, he would be 78 at the time of inauguration—eight years older than the oldest president inaugurated to date, Donald Trump, who was 70 in 2017.

His age might not be as big a liability as his old-school ways.

The former vice president is a man of a different time. He entered politics half a century ago. Back then, he was a white man in a sea of white men in power—he was first elected to a Senate with no female members. He established himself as a respected, well-known politician, and thrived under a system that perpetuated white male privilege.

Given today’s Washington DC scene, is there still space for the good old uncle Joe? Americans just elected the most diverse Congress in history. Politics has been shaken by the #MeToo movement, which is challengingand toppling—the paternalism and misogyny that dominated the field for most of Biden’s career.

In a tangible sign of how things have changed, in the past few days, women have come forward to say that Biden touched them inappropriately. All the incidents were at campaign events. First, former Nevada state representative Lucy Flores said Biden gave her an unwanted kiss during a 2014 campaign event. Only days later, Amy Lappos, a nonprofit worker, accused Biden of grabbing her head and rubbing noses with her at a 2009 fundraiser. Then yesterday (April 2) two more women—a former college student, Caitlyn Caruso, and D.J. Hill, a writer—shared similar episodes.

The women say they see Biden’s actions as inappropriate and that he made them feel uncomfortable. They have not accused him of assault or otherwise breaking the law.

In response to Flores’s statement, Biden said he doesn’t remember things as she does and that he doesn’t believe he acted inappropriately. He said that he respects her recollection and right to speak up. “I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear,” Biden said, “but we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.” This afternoon (Apr. 3), the former vice-president addressed the accusations in a video in which he reiterates his realization that some of what he has referred to as “gestures of support and encouragement” which he says were meant to establish a connection made the receiver uncomfortable. He remarked his understanding that the times have changed, though he also insisted that politics, for him, continues to be about “connection:”

That is an improvement over his bungled attempts to apologize to Anita Hill for the brutal grilling she received in 1991 during the Biden-led Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, whom she accused of sexual harassment. It’s a lukewarm non-apology, nonetheless, because he’s not taking any direct responsibility for his conduct. (Biden has not issued a statement—let alone an apology—addressing the other women’s accounts.

Biden has built reputation of being a decent, good man. He is also handsy, in a way that once could have been read as friendly and warm. He has made a career in a political environment in which hugging, touching, and kissing were accepted and even encouraged—as initiated by men, at least. This is “an asset, not a liability,” a person close to Biden told The Atlantic. Other women, including actress Alyssa Milano, have defended Biden, saying his intentions were never bad.

Still, his behavior and his reaction to the accusations show that he’s out of step with the times. He might have meant no disrespect, yet the women who came forward felt demeaned. It’s precisely that cluelessness that suggests Biden is past his time to be president.

Apparently, these most recent complaints about his handsiness are not enough to derail his plans for  a presidential run. Biden is reportedly as close to jumping into the 2020 race as he was before the women spoke up. And though potential rivals and other prominent Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, have criticized his behavior, it seems many are betting these are forgivable, forgettable offenses. Donald Trump, accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, is using the complaints about Biden to poke fun at the one potential Democratic 2020 opponent he has not derided as a socialist.

Biden remains the establishment-supported candidate (“I don’t think it’s disqualifying,” Pelosi said of behavior she herself criticized), the old-timer with experience and credibility. Polls show him to be the presumed frontrunner.

But if 2016 taught us anything, projections are one thing and elections are another.

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