Joe Biden appeared before a friendly union audience in Washington on Friday, burdened with baggage from an old-fashioned style of politicking, and sought to use humor — not an apology — to defuse a controversy that has threatened his as-yet-undeclared presidential campaign.
As he did so, declared presidential candidates in the Democratic field gathered in an entirely different political universe — a civil rights conference hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton in New York. The juxtaposition of the two produced a split screen of the party’s new guard versus old.
The Biden scene spooled out at a meeting of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — the first union to endorse Biden when he first ran for Senate more than four decades ago. After being introduced by union President Lonnie Stephenson, Biden joked, “I want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie.”
Later, he put his arm around a child on the stage and said: “He gave me permission to touch him.”
The mostly white, male crowd laughed and applauded. But even some Biden defenders cringed as accounts of the meeting circulated.
The audience and setting put Biden back in his political comfort zone after a week of being buffeted by the politics of #MeToo. Several women in recent days have stepped forward to say that Biden touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable.
Afterward, Biden, alert to the perception that he was making jokes at the expense of those women, made an unscheduled stop to talk to reporters.
“It wasn’t my intent to make light of anyone’s discomfort,” he said. “I realize my responsibility is to not invade the space of anyone who is uncomfortable in that regard, and I hope it wasn’t taken that way.”
But he also made clear that although he’s listening to criticism, he doesn’t intend to apologize for past conduct.
“If I made anyone uncomfortable, I feel badly about that,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more. I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything I have ever done. I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally, to a man or a woman.”
In New York, some of the activists, mostly black, who were assembled for Sharpton’s conference near Times Square expressed irritation that Biden wasn’t there. Policies were being unveiled, visions presented, and praise being heaped on candidates by Sharpton.
Though the former vice president is popular among black voters, many of those interviewed cautioned that their enthusiastic support for the Obama administration would not necessarily translate to a vote for Obama’s vice president.
Still, several said they remained open to supporting Biden, but only if he can show an ability to adapt his behavior toward women to the times.
“I don’t believe he meant any harm by it, but it is an issue,” said Myrtle Faulkner, a city employee. She said she will be watching to see how Biden acts in the future.
Dianna Myers, who works in national security, said she was concerned Biden is being judged too harshly, but that she is also looking for him to show he’s not a throwback in his outlook on women.
She said her concern was “how adaptive is he to the changes there have been?”
The audience in New York heard from candidates eager to push the party in a new direction.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren talked of doing away with the Senate filibuster should she win the White House, so that Democrats could finally enact universal child care. California Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled her plan to double the size of the civil rights enforcement division of the Justice Department and promoted her vision for having the federal government step in to boost teacher pay nationwide.
“We’re taking on everybody,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders shouted, vowing to target Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies, billionaires and the fossil fuel industry.
Sharpton asked most of the candidates whether they would give full backing to a congressional measure pursuing reparations for descendants of slaves. Each of the candidates promised unequivocally that they would sign the bill should they be elevated to the Oval Office.
The simultaneous events Friday underscored a challenge Biden faces as he prepares to launch his presidential campaign in the coming weeks. He will probably be the last major candidate to enter the field, and he will enter with the most unimpeachable establishment pedigree and the longest resume of government experience.
Those credentials provide a great asset — he is the top choice in most polls of Democratic primary voters at this point, testimony in part to the power of older voters who skew heavily in his favor.
But Biden’s long record also presents political liabilities.
His political style and some of his past positions mark him as a man of another political era at a time when many in the party are clamoring for younger leaders and fresh faces. The focus this week on his tendency to hug, kiss or generally put his hands on people he meets in public — a widely known hallmark of his backslapping style — could reinforce that image of being out of touch with the times.
Many Biden supporters, however, dismiss the issue, saying he had no need to apologize because his behavior was a well-intentioned gesture from an emotional and caring man. Some at the union meeting said Biden was being held to an absurdly high standard when President Trump has engaged in much more offensive behavior.
“At least he’s not on the record saying he grabbed a woman’s crotch,” said Kimberly L’Heureux, president of a Detroit local of the electrical workers union, referring to a tape of Trump making crude comments that was released in 2016.
“I think it’s just an anti-Biden campaign of negativity.”