Joe Biden gave another big speech on Tuesday, his third this month. It was pre-billed as him stepping up his attacks on Donald Trump, and he did that (“Donald Trump failed us. Month after month, as many of us urged him to step up and do his job, he failed us”), both in prepared remarks and in response to press questions.
But he also did something else, something that wasn’t “news” but was more compelling than a few canned jibes. Remember how Trump used to talk about how he’d be “so presidential that you people would be so bored”? Well, that’s never been true. But Biden is looking so presidential—no, really—that you’ll be thrilled.
This man has changed: History has placed him in the most grim and daunting of occasions, and he is rising to it. He carries himself like a leader and public servant. He talks the way a president is supposed to talk. In laying out five steps he said we should take to fight the coronavirus, which any candidate would do, he conveyed empathy and a proper sense of what being president is about: “Your health will be my responsibility if I’m your president. And I will not abandon you.”
I say all this about Biden with some degree of surprise. I always had mixed feelings about him, partly for the negative aspects of his record, the Anita Hill hearings, and other things, but also partly just as a reaction to his demeanor. He always seemed like probably a basically decent guy, but he came across to me as, you know, a pol, in every sense of that unflattering word: a little too smooth, a little glib, a little oily even; a back-slapper and a glad-hander and not quite someone to whom you assigned the heavy lifting.
I sense something different about him now. The key word is humble. He doesn’t swagger. He doesn’t boast. He used to do that sometimes—that tough-guy act. “Lock the SOBs up,” he said in the ’90s. Today, he says, as he did in Philadelphia on June 2, “we’ve got to now vow to make this at least an era of action and reverse the systemic racism with long-overdue concrete changes.”
You can be cynical about it if you want to, and I know most people will be. But I’d like to think I’ve been observing these people long enough to be able to tell the difference between real sincerity and fake sincerity. And this looks real to me. People do change, and they do get wiser with age. Life has dealt this man some staggering blows. So maybe we should allow for the possibility that he has learned something from those blows.
Humility and empathy are the emotional core of these recent speeches, the first, on June 2 in Philadelphia, about the police protests and racial justice, the second, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on June 25, was about health care. Those two were magnificent. In Wilmington, Del., he ran into a couple of mild spots of bother taking questions from the press, like forgetting Mitch Landrieu’s name (and why did he take those last three questions, and who was that guy?!). But each time he speaks, you remember what a president can, and should, sound like.
Sample this riff from the health-care speech, as he mentioned son Beau’s cancer: “The question wasn’t whether or not he could survive it, the question was how long he would have to live, how many months. I remember sitting in that hospital, Walter Reed, with my two other children, Hunter and Ashley, and Jill, and his wife and his two children, holding his hands and I remember thinking, and I give you my word to this, ‘What in the hell would I do if the insurance company was allowed to do what they could have done before the Affordable Healthcare Act? Come in and say you’ve run out of time. You’ve run out of your coverage. Suffer the last two, three, four, five painful months dying on your own. Suffer in peace.’ I can’t fathom, I cannot fathom a parent having to go through that, which is exactly what happened to many families before the Affordable Care Act.”
He then turned to the invited guests, families with severe illnesses, and told them he gave them his word that he’d take care of their health coverage.
Then he said this, which to me was pitch-perfect: “That’s what the presidency is. The presidency is a duty to care. A duty to care for everyone, not just who voted for you but to care for everyone, for all of us. No trust is more sacred, no responsibility more solemn, no purpose more fundamental than for a president to do absolutely everything that he or she can do to protect American lives.”
Correct. And kind of beautiful, really. And what a contrast to the incumbent. He used the same language in the earlier June 2 speech, so this is clearly his motif. I’ll go out on a limb and say that as the weeks progress, and Trump gets deeper and deeper into self-pitying rage mode, Biden’s promotion of a duty to serve people (what a notion!) is going to start looking pretty good.
He’ll make his gaffes, as he spends more time on the trail. And everyone will latch onto those. It’s the default posture of most liberals (in my circles, anyway) to be indifferent to Biden, and of most leftists to have contempt for him. So I know I’m not going to convince many people here. But I know what I see. He’s a different man. He looks like a person who wants this job for the right reasons, to improve people’s lives.
And by “people” I mean the American people, not his grifter family. Imagine that.