AP NEWS

Joe Biden’s ‘physical style of interaction’ may be liability in 2020 campaign

April 2, 2019

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden is getting an early sense for whether his “Uncle Joe” persona could end up being serious liability in a #MeToo-infused 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

A second woman came forward Monday to detail behavior by Mr. Biden in 2009 that she said made her uncomfortable. Amy Lappos told The Hartford Courant the vice president grabbed her head and rubbed noses with her at a fundraiser.

Her complaint followed that of former Nevada state legislator Lucy Flores, who last week accused Mr. Biden of putting his hands on her shoulders, smelling her hair and kissing the back of her head at a 2014 campaign rally in Las Vegas.

Mr. Biden’s team has vehemently denied he acted inappropriately, while saying the women’s feelings deserve respect.

But nearly five decades after Mr. Biden climbed onto the national political stage as a 29-year-old senator-elect from Delaware, the 76-year-old is preparing to enter the 2020 presidential race consumed with issues of gender and treatment of women.

“It is an open question whether Joe Biden is going to have the political dexterity to navigate the choppy waters of Democratic politics today,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Government at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Women who worked for Mr. Biden have come forth to say they felt respected by him.

Yet the mounting allegations have complicated what Mr. Biden had hoped would be a triumphant entry into the presidential field and put a new spin on the folksy style that has long been considered one of the former vice president’s biggest strengths as a politician.

“Certainly Biden’s physical style of interaction has been a key component of his public image as a warm and friendly individual,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. “However, in this age such actions are often being viewed in a different light and what once may have been seen as an outward gesture of support or friendship can be viewed as intrusive and unwelcome physical actions.”

Polls have consistently shown that Mr. Biden would enter the race as the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination, though his numbers have slipped a little as he comes under more intense scrutiny.

Mr. Biden also polls better than any other Democrat in match-ups against President Trump.

Yet the record he built doesn’t always match with where Democrats are now.

Activists have raised concerns over his evolution on abortion, his vote in favor of authorizing the use of military force in Iraq, and the chief role he played in authoring a 1994 crime bill that activists now blame for mass incarcerations and racial injustice.

#MeToo advocates have taken issue with the role he played as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee overseeing Anita Hill’s testimony during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Trying to get ahead of those attacks, Mr. Biden last week lamented the role that the “white man’s culture” played in the hearings.

“I wish I could have done something,” Mr. Biden said. “To this day I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us.”

Mr. Biden’s critics scoffed at the comment, saying he could have done more. They also say he has had a history of acting inappropriately around women.

“It was considered an open secret that he behaved inappropriately with women,” Ms. Flores told CNBC on Monday. “But it was because we didn’t treat it with the seriousness that it deserved, and this applies to all men in powerful positions. This is about ensuring that women have ... autonomy to their own bodies and own space, and this is about consent.”

The Biden camp stood its ground, saying his critics have seized on “very false” stories that have, at least in a couple of circumstances, been knocked down by the women at the center of them.

“The vice president has issued a statement affirming that in all the many years in public life that he has shaken a hand, given or received a hug, or laid his hand on a shoulder to express concern, support, or reassurance, he never intended to cause discomfort,” said Biden spokesman Bill Russo.

“He has said that he believes that women who have [experienced] any such discomfort, regardless of intention, should speak and be heard, and that he will be among those who listen,” he said.