Joe Biden has a really important quality for a politician: In times of bereavement and sorrow, he seems like he cares. “Empathy” is an overused word (and empathy is extremely dangerous) but it matters to voters (more so to women, according to The Atlantic). Recall that Mitt Romney, in 2012 exit polling, easily bested Barack Obama on the issue of economic stewardship but Obama trounced Romney on the question of “Who cares more about people like me?”
Biden has very little going for him as a candidate and realizes this but rarely misses the opportunity to bring up having lost his wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash. Back in 1988, when Biden first ran for president, it was already a cliché for Biden to invoke the accident. In his book What It Takes, about the 1988 presidential primaries, Richard Ben Cramer writes of “the type that fell out of the machine every time [journalists] used Biden’s name: ‘…whose life was touched by personal tragedy…’ Joe Biden (D-Del., T.B.P.T.).” I fully expect to hear Biden speak about the now 48-year-old event at the next debate, on March 15.
In an astute piece in the New York Review of Books, Fintan O’Toole dubs Biden “the Designated Mourner” and notes how easily and deeply Biden seemed to connect with the father of a murdered New York City police officer in December 2014. Biden wrote in his memoir about how the father (a Chinese immigrant who spoke little English) “held on to me, silently, and wouldn’t let go.” Political memoirs should be read with a skeptical eye, but this rings true.
Biden does not project policy mastery, executive competence, or even (thanks to the matter of Hunter Biden, whose given name is the maiden name of Biden’s deceased wife Neilia) honesty. But he does project empathy, and that matters. In a time of national sorrow, which is what we may be facing in the coming months, perhaps it matters much more.