Joe Biden hasn’t changed.
After several women said earlier this year that Biden had touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable, the former vice president and 2020 Democratic candidate promised to be “much more mindful” of people’s personal space.
But recent incidents tell a different story.
Last month, he called a 10-year-old girl “good-looking” at a campaign event. Then, this week, he told the brothers of a 13-year-old Iowa girl to “keep the guys away from your sister.” And in an exchange that went viral on Twitter, he wagged his finger at an activist, K.C. Cayo, who asked him about abortion rights.
Told Biden we need someone stronger on reproductive justice, and after his reversal on the Hyde Amendment, we asked him to protect assault survivors. He said “nobody has spoken about it, done more, or changed more than I have”. I told him we deserve better. pic.twitter.com/YDtS4Ehs2d
— K.C. (@thelocalmaniac8) June 11, 2019
Ultimately, Biden may not feel he needs to change his behavior very much. He’s long cast himself as an old-school candidate who can bring Democrats back to an earlier era — “the stand-in for a generation of Americans disoriented by changing mores,” as BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith put it. Given that, his refusal to alter the way he interacts with women and girls may be part of his brand. Biden is a candidate from a time before #MeToo entered its most public phase, and for some voters, that might be a selling point — to change himself would be to leave them behind.
For others, though, Biden’s behavior calls into question whether he would truly represent them as president. “Women and our allies are not going to tolerate politicians like this anymore,” Cayo told Vice News. “We’re sick of it.”
Biden’s recent comments recall a long history with girls and women
Biden has long been known for touching and standing close to women, earning the nickname “Creepy Uncle Joe.” But as Laura McGann wrote at Vox, the press treated the behavior more as a joke than as a serious issue — until this year.
In March, former Nevada lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores wrote in an essay at New York Magazine’s the Cut that Biden had smelled her hair and planted an unwelcome kiss on her head during a campaign event in 2014. Shortly thereafter, other women came forward to describe encounters with Biden that made them feel uncomfortable. The former vice president eventually released a video statement saying that “social norms are changing” and pledging to change along with them.
Social norms are changing. I understand that, and I’ve heard what these women are saying. Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it. pic.twitter.com/Ya2mf5ODts
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 3, 2019
But the stories kept coming. At a Texas campaign event in May, he said to a 10-year-old girl, “I bet you’re as bright as you are good-looking.” On Wednesday, he had a controversial exchange with a 13-year-old girl and her family at an Iowa event.
Joe Biden meets a voter’s granddaughter in an Iowa coffee shop and asks her age. She says she’s 13. He addresses her brothers. “You’ve got one job here, keep the guys away from your sister.”
— Liz Goodwin (@lizcgoodwin) June 12, 2019
The teacher of the girl who met Biden in Texas released a statement saying that the girl and her mother were “proud” of the interaction with the former vice president. But Biden’s comments in both instances were widely criticized, with some arguing that Biden was, intentionally or not, sexualizing the young girls involved. Remarks like these turn girls “from person to object,” Emily Peck wrote at HuffPost. “Ask any woman, and you’ll find she was once a little girl made uncomfortable by some adult talking about how she would grow up one day to be a ‘heartbreaker.’”
On Tuesday, Biden met student activist K.C. Cayo at Iowa event. Cayo, who is based in Wisconsin, told Vice they are part of a group that “bird-dogs” candidates, showing up at events to ask them about their policy positions. Cayo asked Biden about the Hyde Amendment, the ban on federal funding for abortions on which he’s changed positions in recent days.
In response, Cayo told Vice, Biden brought up the Violence Against Women Act, a 1994 law he co-authored that was the first comprehensive national legislation to address domestic violence and sexual assault. In the conversation that ensued, Cayo, who uses they/them pronouns, and the two women activists with them, asked Biden to protect assault survivors.
“Then he leaned in very close to my face and started wagging his finger at me,” Cayo told Vice. “He said, ‘Nobody has spoken about it, done more, or changed more than I have.’”
“I can now make the connection between the man I saw and the man accused of harassment by multiple women,” Cayo added. “I saw a man capable of those things: A man who can’t take responsibility, who doesn’t respect women, and who gets in their personal space.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment to Vox about the Iowa incidents.
The candidate’s base may not want him to change his behavior
Given that Biden has recently been accused of inappropriate touching, you might think he would be on high alert when it comes to his behavior around girls and women. But that’s not how the candidate operates.
Even in his video response to the allegations earlier this year, he suggested that he wouldn’t be changing his general style very much. “I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders,” he said. “It’s the way I’ve always been.”
“I’ll always believe governing — quite frankly, life, for that matter — is about connecting with people,” he added.
In the video and other responses to the allegations, he’s made clear that he doesn’t believe he did anything fundamentally wrong in his interactions with Flores or other women. At one point, he told reporters, “I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done.” And he may be betting that his biggest supporters don’t want him to change in response to his critics.
New York Times reporter Astead Herndon noted that in conversations with some voters, Biden emerges as “a vessel for those Dems who think recent movements have made the party too ‘PC.’ They’re not supporting him in spite of actions like this, but [because] of it.”
Biden has always been something of a nostalgia candidate — an “Obama-Biden Democrat” who rejects the party’s recent leftward turn — and voters who want a return to the past may not mind someone who makes jokes about brothers protecting their sisters from boys, or who gets a bit angry when his record is challenged. They may actually like it.
As Herndon notes, it’s unclear if those voters are enough to carry Biden to the presidency. He’s still leading in the polls, but recent polling also suggests many Democrats, including men, are growing more concerned about sexism and men’s power in government.
Biden seems to be betting that there are enough Americans who like him just the way he is — even prefer him that way — that there’s no need to quit making the kind of jokes and gestures he’s always made. Only time will tell if he’s right.