During and after the 2020 election, commentators frequently touted Joe Biden’s character as a major point in his favor. If Trump was unpredictable, aggressive, and uncouth, Biden stood in stark contrast: reliable, collegial, and, above all, empathetic.
As Peter Wehner put it in The Atlantic, “In the entire history of American presidential campaigns, there may never have been a wider gap in empathy than between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And it has rarely mattered more.”
This was no outlier. Forbes ran a story headlined, “How Empathy Defines Biden.” CNN quoted his many endorsers, all of whom invoked his empathy. Slate summed it up: “Joe Biden is the empathy candidate.”
Observers typically trace Biden’s empathy to his life story: a modest upbringing and connection to working-class voters, the death of his first wife, and the early passing of his eldest son and heir apparent, Beau Biden. These events undoubtedly shaped Joe Biden.
But, notwithstanding the tearjerker life story, ample evidence exists that Joe Biden is not such a nice guy.
The Biden Reality
Biden showed the other side of his character this week while giving a commencement address to the Coast Guard Academy. This is a normal enough task for a president, which typically includes a chance to voice a few thoughts on defense policy. Attempting to butter up the crowd, he said, “I can only assume that you will enjoy educating your family about how the Coast Guard is quote, ‘the hard nucleus around the Navy forms in times of war.’”
No one laughed, perhaps because he rearranged the quote into meaningless word salad.
Annoyed, he said “You are a—you are a really dull class. I mean, come on, man, is the sun getting to you? I would think you would have an opportunity when I say that about the Navy to clap.”
Biden, like many politicians, is so used to fawning acolytes and soft glove media treatment, he seems genuinely put off by his interactions with regular people. If empathy means understanding how other people are feeling, his ability to relate has been dulled by years of living an elevated life as a U.S. senator and later vice president, where interactions with others are always compliant and complimentary.
In spite of the concerted media campaign to make his empathy a defining trait, there was ample evidence of Biden’s short fuse and disrespect for regular people before his recent speech to the Coasties.
At an Iowa town hall during the primary, he defended his fitness (at age 77) to be president, challenging a man to a pushup contest and also calling him a “damn liar” when he brought up his son Hunter’s role in providing access for his Ukrainian oligarch employer. Hunter’s laptop later revealed that Joe Biden was the one lying. Biden’s tone in this exchange showed not empathy, but anger and aggression.
Biden has shown such anger before. He told a Michigan auto worker that he was “full of shit” for suggesting that Biden wanted to impair the Second Amendment and take away guns, while in the same breath Biden said he was going to ban the “AR-14.”
After being asked about his electability, Biden called one Democratic voter a “lying dog-faced pony soldier,” whatever that means.
When a young reporter at the Iowa State Fair asked him how many genders there are, he responded “at least three.” He added, “Don’t play games with me kid!” when she asked him to clarify.
Finally, he really seems to get miffed when his lame jokes don’t get laughs. He also seems to have a habit of suggesting that servicemembers are dumb—perhaps a relic of his 1970s-era political formation, when this was a common view. In another talk with deployed soldiers in Dubai, Biden’s joke fell flat. He grumbled, “Clap for that you stupid bastards,” adding, they were a “dull bunch.”
While his entourage defended these remarks as a joke, he and his audience don’t look very happy in the video.
Biden Punches Down
Of course, to say Biden fails to be a nice guy does not mean Donald Trump succeeds. Trump is notoriously capable of being aggressive and offensive. This is a core part of his schtick. He ran and won as a champion for the little guy. He promised to deploy toughness and venom on his behalf.
Media figures, other Republicans, and Trump’s political enemies rarely escaped his acerbic putdowns on Twitter. Who can forget, “Low Energy Jeb” or “Crooked Hillary”? By contrast, one notable aspect of Biden’s outbursts is that they’re all directed essentially at powerless people in controlled settings: uniformed military, auto workers assembled by their union, and random citizens at a townhall.
Biden “the Empath” is a media myth from top to bottom. He was a lackluster senator not known for his intellect. Whenever he makes decisions, he evinces terrible, Machiavalleian judgment: supporting a giveaway to big banks in the 2002 bankruptcy reform or opposing the Bin Laden raid because of the “political consequences of failure.”
More recently he has shown not just intellectual weakness, but moral weakness: he has done nothing to reign in his party’s lunatic fringe. At the same time, he has revealed himself to be a serial liar on matters of consequence, including the crisis at the border and the extent of his gun control plans. This is a pattern of dissembling that began with his 1988 run for president, which he ended in disgrace after documented plagiarism.
The faux unity of the Biden presidency rests on the same propaganda effort that paints him as a kind, empathetic elder statesman with the common touch. While Biden has mouthed superficial words about uniting the country and alleviating the suffering of the working class, his actions show commitment to naked partisanship and contempt for most of his fellow Americans. In this sense, his recent insult to the Coast Guard Academy graduates was not a gaffe or an outlier but a confirmation of who he really is.
Biden is a phony . . . and not a very nice one at that.