Old man Finnegan, Joe Biden tells us, did not emigrate to America because he wanted to have fun. “He came to work. He knew it would be hard.” And just like his great-grandfather, Owen Finnegan, who fled the Irish Famine of 1849 and took a shot in a new homeland, immigrants today from Central America come in search of a better life without expecting handouts. “Give the new ones a chance. That’s what makes us who we are!”*
Biden meanders through Clinton College’s basketball court in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He has abandoned the podium, and approaches the crowd. He looks them directly in the eyes, sometimes grabbing them by the shoulders. He seeks physical closeness. And he answers questions by sharing anecdotes before he segues to big policy issues.
The USA’s Secret Recipe
Uncle Joe, the storyteller. His fans like calling him that. Even at Clinton College, it’s all about stories. About Finnegan, the shoemaker from Ireland who did not know what to expect when his ship docked in New York, other than that he would have to apply himself.
Or about the prime minister of Singapore. He had asked Biden what America’s secret was. “First, I explained to him that no one gets punished for questioning tradition. We destroy the old, in order to create something new.” And secondly, there has been one immigration wave after another since the 18th century, each initially being met with a great deal of hostility until one came to terms with them. In the end, being open, despite all of the obstacles, is America’s recipe for success.
A Constant Dark Side
But now we are experiencing how Donald Trump wants to take the republic down a different path. No, Biden says, America has never been a fairytale. There has always been a dark side, a rejection of all that is foreign. Well, now that we know what Trump does in the White House, we are aware of this dark side more than ever. “Folks! It’s high time that we remember who we really are!”*
Biden has already run for president twice, in 1988 and 2008, both times unsuccessfully. Things are different the third time; at least, he hopes so. On his second attempt, he was still considered a typical career politician and seasoned insider who had been in the Senate continuously since the early 1970s. In the eight years that he served as Barack Obama’s vice president, he gained a reputation as a popular speaker. In a cabinet that stood firmly for pragmatic objectivity, Biden was the exception, the buddy who, from time to time, said something crude.
Biden still takes a down-to-earth approach, which he considers his strength. As he speaks in Rock Hill about the urgency of stricter gun laws, about provision that should at least restrict the ownership of rapid-fire weapons, he illustrates it with a story.
About Lousy Shooters
This one is about Sen. Biden, en route to Delaware, where he spoke openly with a hunter. “Do you really need a magazine with 100 cartridges to go deer hunting? And an AR-15 semi-automatic? Man, you seem like a lousy shooter!” If you hunt, a shotgun is enough, and Biden makes it clear that he does not want to take those away from anyone. True, the U.S. Constitution guarantees private gun ownership** – “but nowhere is it written that you can own whichever guns you want.”*
The anecdotes just pour out of him, and once they gain traction, Biden sometimes embellishes them. This sometimes leads to embarrassing gaffes. Recently in Hanover, New Hampshire, he spoke about a U.S. solider who wanted to save a wounded comrade in eastern Afghanistan, but died shortly thereafter. Biden described how he stood before the man as vice president to award him a medal for bravery. “I don’t want the damn thing,” the captain protested. “Please don’t! Do not do that! He died!”
There is a catch to the story. Biden actually traveled to Kunar Province where a soldier received a medal for bravery, but not from Biden, and that was 2008, when he was still a senator. As vice president, Biden did indeed pin a medal on the chest of a soldier who did not want it. But that was 2011, the man was not a captain, and it was actually a different Afghan province. Biden defended himself by saying that the issue was the courage of silent heroes, and even if every detail is not true, the essence of the story does not change.
Age as a Potential Achilles’ Heel
But questions remained. Does Uncle Joe, a storyteller, fail to take facts seriously? Or is memory playing a trick on him? Is he already too old for presidential office? Ronald Reagan was 73 when he was elected for a second term. Biden would be 78, if he were to take the oath of office in 2021. Age could prove to be his Achilles’ heel.
The other question is whether voters want a radical change in political personalities this time, as was the case with Bill Clinton or, later, with Obama. Or whether the experience that Biden has will overcome everything else this time. As the motto goes: No more experimenting with strong predictability after that nail-biter with Trump.
One person who sees it this way is Lawrence Thompson, a young, black student. “Biden’s experience is the change,” he says.* Of course, those who promise change often have the winning hand. But this time, it may be different; this time the country yearns for a return to calmer seas. Even though his heart beats for Bernie Sanders, even though he agrees with Elizabeth Warren on many things, his mind tells him that Biden is the right person. If the Democrats nominate someone from the left, the centrists would hold their nose and vote for Trump again, Thompson thinks.
“We need a steady hand at the helm,” says Mary Traficante, who is white and retired. “We need professional serenity, if you will.” Jim Leonard, a power plant engineer, explains that he wanted to give Trump a chance at first. Despite all the skepticism, he entertained the possibility that a nonpolitician would shake up the party gridlock. “But then it became worse than I had thought possible. We are doing all of ourselves a favor if we urge him to leave the White House.”*
A Question of Reason
The challenger Leonard trusts the most to defeat Trump is Biden, even though he doesn’t feel any enthusiasm when he talks about him. Above all, Leonard believes Biden is smart enough to listen to others. And he misses that the most with Trump. “I have the feeling that he only listens to one person, and that is himself.”*
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, these quotes could not be independently verified.
**Editor’s note: The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall mot be infringed.”