We all carry grief in us, but Joe Biden walks around with a much heavier burden of suffering than most. In 1972, after Biden had won his first Senate race, a station wagon driven by his wife, Neila, was hit by a tractor trailer. Neila died, as did the Bidens’ 1-year-old daughter, Naomi. Two Biden sons, Beau and Hunter, were severely injured. The depth of Biden’s despair after losing his wife and daughter is almost beyond fathoming. As he wrote in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, “I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in; how suicide wasn’t just an option but a rational option.” But Biden persevered, first as a single father and eventually remarrying. Beau Biden, who his father hoped would one day be president, was struck down by cancer in 2015 at age 46.
Personal tragedies have defined Biden’s life—and also shaped his political persona. In his 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad, which covers Biden’s term as vice president and Beau’s final years, Biden writes, “I have found over the years that, although it brought back my own vivid memories of sad times, my presence almost always brought some solace to people who have suffered sudden and unexpected loss.” Biden adds, “When I talk to people in mourning, they know I speak from experience.”
The bereaved are Biden’s special constituency, the people he most easily finds a rapport with. In pre-Covid days, he would seek them out in campaign events, bond with them, give them a hug or squeeze. That last habit caused problems: Biden’s handsiness was becoming controversial even before it became medically unsound. Leaving aside the more serious accusation of Tara Reade, eight women have testified that his touchiness made them feel uncomfortable or violated.
Biden’s personal tragedy also explains other characteristics, like the importance he gives to friendship and family. Biden’s protectiveness towards his spectacularly ne’er-do-well son Hunter is humanly understandable—even if politically ill-advised. Hunter is all Biden has left of his first marriage.
The two best essays I’ve read about Biden in this election cycle have both called attention to the centrality of suffering in his life and political identity. Writing in The New Republic in May of 2019, the historian George Blaustein argued, “What is distinctive about [Biden] is not his politics but something more elusive: the chords of grief and mourning that he plays in the culture and that the culture hears in him.”
This argument was echoed and expanded upon by the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole. Writing in January 2020 in The New York Review of Books, O’Toole contended that “Biden is the most gothic figure in American politics. He is haunted by death, not just by the private tragedies his family has endured, but by a larger and more public sense of loss.” O’Toole called attention to Biden’s frequent invocation of the Kennedys, an Irish Catholic political clan even more tragedy-wracked than the Bidens. In the 1983 speech that first made him a figure notable enough to be discussed as a potential presidential nominee, Biden said, “Just because our political heroes were murdered does not mean that the dream does not still live, buried deep in our broken hearts.” At a fundamental level, Biden’s promise is that he will heal a world rent by suffering and death.
Both Blaustein and O’Toole expressed skepticism about how far Biden’s identity as a Man of Constant Sorrow could carry him. Yet as it happens, events have made this identity much more politically potent than it might have seemed when Biden first launched his campaign.
Most of America, indeed most of the world, is in a state of grief. The Covid-19 pandemic has not only infected and killed countless thousands, but it has also left the non-infected in the shadow of death. In an added twist, the non-infected are often cruelly unable to comfort loved ones who are suffering or dying.
Even as the Covid-19 crisis continued, the global uprising against police racism erupted. Again, the consequence was a shared trauma: Thanks to the video of a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he died, much of the world bore witness to an atrocity.
Amid all this pain, Biden has had a chance to shine at what he does best: offering words of comfort. In a May 30 blog post, Biden wrote:
I know that there are people all across this country who are suffering tonight. Suffering the loss of a loved one to intolerable circumstances, like the Floyd family, or to the virus that is still gripping our nation. Suffering economic hardships, whether due to COVID-19 or entrenched inequalities in our system. And I know that a grief that dark and deep may at times feel too heavy to bear.
The repeated use of the phrase “I know” is an unobtrusive way for Biden to connect his personal grief with the trauma of the wider public. Biden is running to be a national grief counselor, someone with the empathy to understand pain and say the right words. As he says in the blog post, “As President, I will help lead this conversation—and more importantly, I will listen.”
The political value of emphasizing his own empathy is increased by the contrast it draws with the incumbent. In his own way, Trump is also a master of the politics of emotions. But Trump doesn’t empathize with the suffering of the nation as a whole, nor does he have an ability to use shared suffering as a basis for building relationships of fellow-feeling.
Rather, Trump transmutes the pain of his followers into rage. This ability to channel hurt and turn it into anger is the source of Trump’s political strength—but it also limits his ability to even mimic the language of unity and healing.
It’s hardly an accident that Biden has been surging in the polls. A recent CNN poll had him hitting a high-water mark of 55 percent as against Trump’s 41.
Biden’s mastery of the language of grief might play a crucial role in winning him the presidency. Yet the question remains whether he will then be able to govern. His identity as a stoic sufferer has given him the gift of reaching people who might be otherwise closed to him. It’s the basis of his reputation for being able to build bipartisan alliances and cross-ideological friendships.
But beyond offering comfort during a crisis, a president also has to provide political leadership in ways that go beyond displaying decency. The problems America faces will require a politician who is willing to make enemies as well as friends, who has the firmness to take on the entrenched interests that support police racism, a woefully unfair health care system, and a wildly unjust economy.
It’s unclear if Biden is up for the political battles that need to be fought. The emphasis he gives to healing and reconciliation, which might well win him the presidency, may also undercut his ability to use the presidency to push for change. As Fintan O’Toole notes, “Consolation is not social change. Solace is not enough.”