WILMINGTON, Del. – When grieving with those who lost loved ones in a building collapse, President Joe Biden invoked the car crash that claimed members of his own family decades ago. When explaining his decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, he remembered his veteran son. When discussing the importance of education, he recalled the teachers who helped him overcome his childhood stutter.
And when he met with Queen Elizabeth and then Vladimir Putin on a recent trip abroad, he couldn't resist bringing up his mother with both of them.
The personal has always been the political for Biden. Far more than his recent predecessors, the president publicly draws on his own experiences when he makes connections with voters and considers his decisions. Many politicians make their background a central component of their political identity, but Biden is particularly prone to draw links between his own life story and the day-to-day workings of his presidency.
And the strongest connection is often the saddest one.
Few public figures speak as powerfully on grief as Biden, who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash and later his adult son Beau to brain cancer. In the first months of his term, he has drawn on that empathy to console those who have lost loved ones, including the more than 600,000 who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.
And it was on vivid display recently when he spent more than three hours in private with people mourning the loss of loved ones in the building collapse in Surfside, Florida, going from family to family to hear the stories of those still missing in the debris. Biden spoke of wanting to switch places with a lost or missing loved one and lamented that “the waiting, the waiting, is unbearable.”
“The people you may have lost — they’re going to be with you your whole life,” he told the families. “A part of your soul, a part of who you are.”
Biden carries with him an index card that lists the total number of Americans who have died from COVID-19 and in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been known to quietly send notes to people, including lawmakers and journalists, affected by cancer, referring to his own family’s struggles with the affliction.
“Cynical people say, ‘OK, this is a calculator, these are crocodile tears, this is something he turns on and off for the cameras.’ ... That is total balderdash,” said Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic South Carolina state lawmaker who’s known and advised Biden for 40 years.
Harpootlian said that when his own mother died, Biden called with condolences. The lawmaker added: “Empathy is sort of the wrong word. I mean, it’s not strong enough. It was just, he felt my loss.
“I could tell it’s sincere, genuine caring for people that are hurt or have lost loved ones,” he continued.
Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, looms large in the president’s life.
He said that his dying son made him promise to keep going and, the day before he was sworn in as president, he tearfully told a crowd in Delaware that his “only regret" was that Beau couldn't be there. Biden marked his first Memorial Day weekend as commander in chief by honoring the nation’s sacrifices in a deeply personal manner as he paid tribute to those lost while remembering his son.
“I know how much the loss hurts,” said Biden.
Though a tent was overhead, the cold wind whipped the rain onto guests as they watched a lone military trumpeter play taps at a memorial to Delaware’s fallen troops. Biden appeared to pay the chill no mind, remaining for the entirety of the 75-minute ceremony and mouthing the words to the closing rendition of “God Bless America.”
“For Joe Biden, this isn’t something that he does — this is who he is,” said Anita Dunn, senior White House adviser. “He makes sure that everyone who wants to talk to him got to talk to him, and not just a greeting but a conversation. He knows how important those conversations are because of the tragedy in his own life.”
Biden draws on more than just grief.
This past week, at an event in Illinois to promote the family portion of his massive infrastructure bill, he extolled its benefits for child care and in particular for single parents. He evoked his own challenges as a single father in the aftermath of the car accident that killed his first wife and daughter and injured his two young sons.
“If I hadn’t had the family I have, my younger sister, my best friend, and my brother, and my mom help out, I couldn’t have done it,” the president said. “But not everybody has that kind of support.”
West Wing staffers and journalists alike know that nearly every event has a chance to be enhanced — or sidetracked — by a stroll down memory lane. In Brussels, during his first overseas trip, Biden took a detour about his father changing jobs and neglected to deliver news of an Airbus-Boeing trade deal as planned.
At a recent education event in Washington, Biden evoked both his second wife, first lady Jill Biden, a teacher, and the educators who helped him manage a childhood stutter.
“They took a stuttering kid who couldn’t speak very well in school, was scared to death to be called on to read out loud,” Biden recalled.
“And they nurtured me: ‘Joey — you’re a very smart boy, Joey. Just take your time. Don’t let that get in your way, Joey,’” he told the gathering of teachers. “I’m serious. I think what you all underestimate, beyond the teaching of reading and writing, adding and subtracting: You give so many kids confidence.”
Many presidents draw from their own lives to guide their politics: George W. Bush fashioned a persona as a down-home Texas ranch owner; Bill Clinton frequently invoked his family’s poverty; even Donald Trump told stories of a friend named Jim who no longer felt safe going to Paris as a means to explain his own hard-line immigration policies.
But folksy remembrances often give Biden a more relatable identity than those of many of his predecessors, including Trump, who lived in a Manhattan skyscraper that bore his name in gold-plated letters, and Barack Obama, whose cool intellect and constitutional law background at times appeared to leave him detached.
There are potential downsides to Biden’s approach, as he risks suggesting to people that he can’t identify with people whose life experiences are different than his own. But many observers believe that those connections to his own life — which mirror how many voters relate to issues, through the prisms of their own family and experiences — can be both genuine and politically effective.
“Starting with the ‘Joe from Scranton’ moniker, to the horrific car crash, to the glory and tragedy of Beau to the foibles of Hunter, the President dons a soft tone and frames most of his worldview from his reminiscence,” said Tobe Berkovitz, political ad consultant and professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. “No president has ever worn his heart on his sleeve like Joe Biden.”
Jaffe reported from Washington.