No selfies or hugs, but Joe Biden is sneaking in meet and greets

As the coronavirus has rampaged across the country, Biden has carefully avoided many traditional aspects of running for president
Last Updated 30 October 2020, 03:36 IST

Before a speech this month in Durham, North Carolina, Joe Biden made his way around a circle of participants, chatting with each of them before posing for a group photograph. In Chester, Pennsylvania, a week later, he kibitzed with supporters, playfully punching one in the arm. And on a recent trip to Florida, his private schedule for the day included time for a photo line.

As the coronavirus has rampaged across the country, Biden has carefully avoided many traditional aspects of running for president. But even as he maintains his cautious, sober approach to campaigning — one that he is betting voters will reward on Election Day in less than a week — he has pursued one of his favorite electoral activities: retail politicking.

Although he is not quite kissing babies or walking a rope line, Biden has quietly continued chit-chatting and snapping photographs with supporters behind the scenes. Most of the encounters are not public, and they often happen far from the watchful eyes of reporters. Participants have been instructed not to take their own pictures of their interactions and to put away their cellphones before meeting Biden — a protocol that the campaign has instituted for sanitation reasons but that means there are few records of the interactions on personal social media accounts or otherwise, if there are any at all.

During a campaign trip this month to Erie County, Pennsylvania, where Biden toured a plumbers union training center and delivered a speech, he met one-on-one in an airport hangar with local leaders and supporters including Jim Wertz, the chair of the local Democratic Party. When Wertz told Biden that his young daughter had debated at school in favor of the question “Why should Joe Biden be the next president of the United States?”, Biden asked for her number and called her.

“That’s who Joe Biden is,” Wertz wrote in a Facebook post afterward.

And this is what Joe Biden does. Biden’s fondness for face-to-face campaigning is well known, and his tendency to linger on rope lines after campaign events was long considered one of his greatest political strengths. Some voters who met him, moved by Biden’s ability to share in their personal pain, would emerge from their interactions with misty eyes and a story to recount for the rest of their lives.

But Biden’s campaign events are now smaller affairs for the most part, with limited guest lists and strict social distancing requirements, frustrating some voters who have been turned away and largely depriving the former vice president of the shoulder-grabbing, look-’em-in-the-eyes interactions he craves. So now, he is going about it another way.

The Biden campaign said that whenever possible, it tries to arrange opportunities for Biden during his events to say hello and thank local elected officials and community members, following the safety protocols it has put in place for in-person events. It also asks that participants put away their cellphones so that there is no passing back-and-forth of phones for selfies or personal photos out of concern for sanitation; instead, the campaign’s official photographer takes the photos.

Certainly, there are potential strategic benefits for Biden in holding nonpublic meet-and-greets with supporters. Unlike his pre-pandemic rope lines, his audience is carefully curated. Without reporters to witness the conversations, there is little risk that news cameras will capture any gaffe or misplaced remark.

And in something of a political sleight of hand, at least one nonpublic moment has led to positive local media coverage. Wertz said news of Biden’s phone call with his daughter went semiviral, at least in the area: The local news covered it, and it was featured in a column in the Erie newspaper.

Yet allies say Biden’s behind-the-scenes tête-à-têtes reflect his natural impulse to connect with people on a personal level.

“I don’t know if it’s the Irish in him or what it is, but he just really likes people,” said Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa and a longtime friend of the Biden family. “I think he thrives on it. I think he draws energy.”

“I honestly think if we hadn’t pulled him out in February, he would still be at one of the events in Iowa,” he added.

Terry Shumaker, a longtime Democratic leader in New Hampshire who has known Biden for decades, said the lack of voter interaction for the former vice president “must be like going through withdrawal.”

“It would be like telling him he can’t have ice cream anymore,” he said, referring to Biden’s favorite dessert.

On Saturday during the World Series, the Biden campaign aired an ad narrated by Brad Pitt that showcased the former vice president meeting people before the pandemic, clasping hands and leaning in close, meant as a final message to voters that he would be right there with them if he could be.

Biden’s zeal for personal connection was on public display after his town hall event on ABC two weeks ago. After the event wrapped, he put on a mask and stayed for nearly 30 additional minutes to take more questions from voters. As cameras continued to roll, his post-town-hall chat was broadcast live in the background as pundits offered their closing thoughts.

Some skeptics saw in the gesture a grab for attention. Those who know him say Joe was just being Joe.

Biden himself has acknowledged repeatedly how much he misses talking to voters directly. “I’m a tactile politician,” he said at a virtual fundraiser in August. “I really miss being able to, you know, grab hands, shake hands. You can’t do that now.”

In the earlier days of the pandemic, his campaign, cognizant of his desire to interact with people directly, even set up a “virtual rope line,” before discontinuing the idea. It soon discovered that the format was not ideal for someone who would talk all day if he didn’t have anywhere else to be.

Recent interactions suggest that when he finds himself in proximity to nearly anyone, he almost can’t help himself.

During a stop in Chester, Pennsylvania, on Monday, in a scene that was captured via livestream, Biden regaled supporters with a tale about Ireland. As an aide shepherded him to a lectern, where he was to deliver remarks, he stopped to talk to several people — <em>Hey, how are you? Good to see ya!</em> — including one man he puckishly punched in the arm.

This time for face-to-face encounters seems to be built into his schedule. At an event in Broward County, Florida, this month, a photographer snapped a photo of Biden holding what appears to be a piece of paper with his personal schedule for Oct. 13. At the bottom is a brief entry: “Photoline with elected.”

Images shared on his campaign’s public Flickr account show him in group photographs with supporters and local leaders across the country, Biden often in the front, masked and kneeling, a healthy distance away. One photograph appears to have been taken in a cavernous union hall in Toledo, Ohio. Another was shot in Miami, his supporters standing in circles marked on the ground — one flashes a thumbs up — while Biden looks on from the back. Other images reveal group photos in other places he has traveled recently including Cincinnati, Detroit and Phoenix.

The private photo ops are a symbolic reminder of how much the pandemic has changed campaigning in the past year: While some of the defining images of the Democratic presidential primary were Elizabeth Warren’s tactile and very public selfie lines, the race is now ending with images of Biden and his supporters snapped in secret that show everyone more than an arm’s length apart.

There are, of course, new safety precautions to follow as well.

During a stop in Durham this month, the Biden campaign ushered participants into a high school building, distributed additional face masks and instructed everyone to stand on pieces of tape stuck to the floor 6 feet apart, said Jessica Holmes, a candidate for labor commissioner who attended the gathering.

Biden then entered, going around the circle and speaking to everyone individually. When he got to Holmes, she said, she told him that she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, just like Sen. Kamala Harris, his running mate. He promised her he would engage leaders in the “Divine Nine,” a group of historically Black sororities and fraternities.

“He said: ‘Well you know, Jessica, I am so adamant about engaging leaders in the African American community, engaging leaders in the Divine Nine. I am going to have a Divine Nine office in my White House,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t wait to visit.’”

At one point, she extended her elbow to him only to be told by someone involved with his campaign that he was not touching anyone because of the coronavirus. Biden was having none of that. “The VP literally swatted them away and extended his elbow to me,” she said.

Through it all, Holmes said, she was struck by how engaged he seemed with each person.

“I’m sure his team would have preferred he had moved faster,” she said. “It was almost as if he had to be pushed around.”

(Published 30 October 2020, 03:07 IST)

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