Politics & Media
Sep 25, 2023, 05:57AM

Joe Biden’s Hard to Hate

He's not formidable enough to sustain real hostility. And he cares.

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It's hard to hate Joe Biden. He's not polling very well, and as the House gears up for an impeachment inquiry, a surprising "58 percent of Americans say Biden is being held accountable under the law like any other president while 32 percent say he is being unfairly victimized by political opponents." That sentence flatly asserts that The Washington Post and ABC News have asked this rather tortured question to all Americans, which is false. Still, impeachment seems popular.

But even if Republicans were to impeach the man and remove him from office, I don't think they're really motivated by screeching hatred, though people try to jack it up on Newsmax and so on, with phrases such "the Biden crime family." But even there, he's a family man, you know? And Biden’s no Michael Corleone.

People really hated Ronald Reagan, and if you're Frederic Jameson, for example, you still blame him and Margaret Thatcher for "neoliberal austerity" and the very shape of "late capitalism" itself (as though late capitalism had a shape). Back then, people were obsessed by what a dolt he supposedly was(Reagan, not Jameson), an alleged fact with which they unsuccessfully comforted themselves for a decade.

People didn't really hate George H.W. Bush, though they should have. But since then, it's been demons, as demanded by our complete polarization into the good side and the evil side (but which is which?)

People hated Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bill seemed really friendly, connected and accessible, if also unbelievably handsy. But the conspiracy theories blossomed, until people had him strolling down to the Potomac and killing Vince Foster. People didn't truly hate George W. Bush, the president that you wantedto have a beer with, but then again they thought Dick Cheney was the embodiment of all evil (okay, that's oddly plausible, I admit), and was really running the government, which was randomly invading Middle East countries and entering into newtorture programs.

I didn't hate Obama, though I gave it a shot at times. But he seems like a decent and bright enough guy, if rather aloof. But other people hate hate hated him, and argued that he was Kenyan, an alien force sent to destroy our great nation. "How's that hopey changey stuff working out for you?" asked Sarah Palin, but he got re-elected anyway. I spent the Trump admin in academia, and heard the hatred for Trump and incomprehension about his popularity every single day for years on end.

But I don't think Biden is formidable enough to sustain real hostility. Even his aspiring impeachers are focusing on Hunter instead. If they get to Joe, they'll get him for trying too hard to help his suffering adult child, which can definitely lead you to corruption, but which is also kind of understandable, or even the sort of thing one might vaguely regard as a matter of duty. I’d do anything for my kid, right? Even commit a string of felonies, because I'm Joe Biden and nothing, nothing is as important as family, as my dad always used to tell me. Little Joey, he'd say. I don't believe that Joe's dad told him all these things. But I'm not certain that Joe doesn't believe he did. Because that's just the sort of person Joe Biden is.

Joe has trouble with the truth. He's liable to reinvent his whole life just to "connect." When he says the false stuff, he gets even more intense and passionate, the syntax fractures even a little more, his voice cracks: he kind of believes it! And it's his greatest political strength, even as it brings a variety of drawbacks.

A beautiful example of the whole Joe occurred when he visited Hawaii after the devastating fires in Maui, and said stuff along these lines: "We have a little sense, Jill and I, of what it's like to lose a home," he said. "Years ago now, 15 years ago, I was in Washington doing Meet the Press. It was a sunny Sunday. Lightning struck at home, on a little lake that's outside of our home—not a lake, a big pond—and hit a wire that came up underneath our home into the heating ducts and air conditioning ducts. To make a long story short, I almost lost my wife, my '67 Corvette, and my cat."

Retailing the same tale to a firefighters' group in March, Biden went with "We almost lost a couple firefighters, they tell me, because the kitchen floor was burning between beams in the house, in addition to almost collapsed into the basement.” Fact check: there was indeed a fire in 2004. “Biden’s house on Barley Mill Road was reported hit by lightning, emergency officials said. There were no injuries and firefighters kept the fire contained to one room.” It was over in 20 minutes.

Biden, routinely rattles on in sentence fragments, and each time he tells a story it gets bigger and less based in reality. So we might just say "lying politician" and try to vote for someone else (however, consider the alternative). But I think Joe's lies and all the incoherent hyperbole, are at their heart, at his heart, not evil. He's the opposite of his older contemporary Richard Nixon, and when he does wrong, it's often from an excess of a desire to do good.

Biden's strength as a politician is that he's Empathy Joe. Clinton said he felt our pain, but Biden really does appear to. He thinks of a lot of his job like this: when people go through bad things, anything from a fire to a spike in unemployment, they want to be understood or "seen." They don't want to be condescended to and pitied and fixed, necessarily, but they need to know that others, especially their leaders, have a sense of what they're going through. Biden tries. He really does. He tries too hard.

But he’s effective in comforting people in loss. The fact that his first wife and daughter died in a car accident (his sons were in the car too), has genuinely helped him bring some healing to families in natural disasters and mass killings. It's his greatest strength as a politician, maybe as a human. I think he does it sincerely, but the emotions drag him away from the facts.

He sees the people of Maui suffering, and his heart overflows. Oh, this so terrible, he says, and then "I am you; I know what you're feeling, I feel it too." But how can I possibly know what people who've lost everything in a fire are feeling? Now I reach into my memory banks for my closest experience, so I can use it to understand. And then I say it. And then I just keep blowing it up. In my heart, the truth is in the connection, not the assertion.


I don't think Joe Biden is particularly smart. Clinton and Obama had many gifts of phrase-making and policy mastery that elude him. You definitely do not want him questioning Supreme Court nominees, because he's liable to just start yammering about how his kids went to Ivy League colleges or something. I don't think he's personally wildly corrupt, but I bet he'd do anything for that fucked-up son of his.


Biden’s not a bad person, I feel, and usually when he does wrong, it's because he's trying to do good, though in a bumbling fashion. When Trump does good, on the other hand, it's because he's trying to do evil. Perhaps these aren’t the greatest leaders our country has ever produced. Still, I'll probably end up voting for Biden. The way he rescued his cat from that fire was just so heroic.


—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell



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