Joe Biden wants to hold your hand.
When he is approached by potential voters, he reaches for a handshake — and he doesn’t let go.
With his left hand he grips an elbow, points a finger or, if he wants a more enduring connection, pulls a patented Biden move: he clasps the still unbroken handshake.
It’s an apt metaphor for the way Biden engages with voters. He envelops them in goodwill.
Women sometimes get a hug. With men he delivers a “hey man” as he pounds the shoulder or upper back in an affectionate, but modified, bro hug.
If the talk becomes more emotional, Biden will release, put both his hands on their shoulders and bring their faces close together.
What doesn’t change is the intensity of his attention. His lustrous blue eyes remain focused. There are no looks over the shoulder to see if someone more important is there. The person, who for a brief moment has entered into Joe Biden’s orbit, is the only one in the room.
The second event on Day Two of his recent 8-day “No Malarkey” bus tour was in Carroll, Iowa, a small rural community about two-and-a-half hours north of Des Moines. Long after he’d finished his streamlined and surprisingly well-delivered stump speech, the line of meet-and-greeters had dwindled to a handful. But the candidate remained on his game, giving the Biden treatment to those who stayed for a quick word and a selfie. His staffers — most of whom likely weren’t born when he first won elected office in Delaware in 1970 — tried to coax Biden back on his “No Malarkey” emblazoned bus, but he was not yet ready to say goodbye.
He walked to the back of the room and found a group of four talking amongst themselves, oblivious to the approaching former vice president. When Biden finished with them, he started rapping with several news cameramen who were tracking his bus tour. They took a group picture with Biden — giving him one more chance to show off his pearly whites.
For Biden, talking to voters is more than a chance to sway an undecided voter; it’s a life-affirming experience. He laughs with them; he cries; he touches; he consoles.
Seeing Biden on the stump is a constant reminder that for all his faults — his verbal gaffes, his meandering speeches, his often uninspiring debate performances, the creeping sense that politics has passed him by — Uncle Joe is, at his core, a good guy.
There is perhaps no simpler explanation for why, in a campaign where so much of the attention has been focused on his political rivals, Biden remains the Democratic front-runner and the candidate best positioned to not only win his party’s nomination but become the next president of the United States.
“Compassionate, genuine, empathetic, a good man.”
These are the words one hears over and over from Biden’s supporters.
“He’s so honest and pure and decent,” a senior voter named Barb Wagner told me in the town of Storm Lake, “I’d like him to be in my family.”
“He’s about as honest a person as you could ever wish for,” said Russ Steinkamp, a teacher and high school football coach, in Carroll.
“I like the idea that he has empathy,” said his wife, Mary Jo, in what she intended as a clear contrast to the current occupant of the White House. It was also a reference to the personal tragedies that have defined Biden’s life — a biographical point that many seem to consider his most powerful attribute. Life has thrown Biden to the canvas on more than one occasion and he is still standing, ready to serve.
Where Trump is a con man — selfish, lacking in values, and only out for himself — Biden is the polar opposite.
It’s a point he drives home in his stump speech. He speaks of the harm that Trump is doing to the country’s national character and urges his audience to pose some basic questions before casting a ballot in 2020: “Is the person decent?,” he asked. “Does the person share my fundamental values? Are they going to be straight with me?” And he reminds his crowds, often filled with older voters, “that’s how we were all raised.”
Pundits, political observers, and candidates (including Biden) talk incessantly about the intricacies of health care policy or the specifics of college debt forgiveness. But his supporters seem far less interested in policy matters than the idea that the former vice president can return the country to some sense of normalcy.
It’s perhaps not surprising that a candidate born during World War II would evoke nostalgia for the past, but with Biden it’s essential to his campaign pitch.
He speaks constantly of when America “led the world by the power of our example” and when the middle class was the “backbone of the country.”
“We have to restore the soul of America,” Biden says at every event. To those who argue that “things have changed” and you can’t bring Democrats and Republicans together, Biden has a simple retort — if that’s true then “we’re in real trouble.”
In Biden’s telling, the present gridlock in Washington is the exception not the rule — a problem that can be surmounted with old-fashioned American can-do ism.
“When given a chance, the American people have never, never let this country down,” Biden likes to say. “There’s so much to do, we can get things done,” he adds optimistically. And in contrast to Trump’s cultist message — “I alone can fix it” — he makes clear “we can fix this.”
The “this” is a president Biden attacks with a weary bewilderment that such a man could rise to the heights of political power: “I don’t think he has any regard, none, for our laws, for the Constitution, for our democracy, for the truth.”
“He has spent his time not worrying about who we are," Biden says, "but fanning the flames of hate. . . embracing murderous dictators. . . separating families, ripping children from their mothers’ arms at the border.”
More than one political observer has argued that Trump’s rise is not a one-off event, but rather the by-product of decades of growing polarization and partisanship.
To Biden, though, it’s about the president who needs to have his “mouth washed out with soap.”
“We can handle four years of Donald Trump with difficulty. . . but eight years will fundamentally change the nature of who we are.”
Progressive critics would say that change has already happened and Biden’s belief that he can bring together Democrats and Republicans is hopelessly naive. They make a compelling argument. It’s hard to believe that the same Republicans who have spent years enabling Trump’s atrocious behavior will put down their swords if Biden wins the White House. Considering that Biden spent eight years in the Obama White House, it’s hard to imagine that even he believes this will happen. The cynical view is that he is just saying what he thinks voters want to hear.
Whether he buys his own prescriptions or not, they seem to be swaying voters.
Biden’s supporters, pointing to his experience, seem to think he can reach across the aisle. He’s been around Washington and “he knows how to work with people,” more than one person said to me.
It’s a reminder — all too often forgotten this campaign cycle — that a majority of Democrats are moderate, un-“woke,” and cling to the notion of bipartisanship.
Their backing is but one of Biden’s assets. He also has strong support among African-American voters, who make up approximately one-quarter of the Democratic electorate. And polls — and the crowds he draws at campaign events — suggest that older voters, who are more likely to vote than the younger generation that has glommed on to Warren and Sanders, will be a strong asset. These groups not only provide Biden with a significant advantage in the Democratic nomination fight, they will be essential to beating Trump in a general election.
Yet for all his advantages, there is a sense with Biden that it could — at any moment — all fall apart.
While he sounded far better on the stump in Iowa than he has in much of the campaign, the meandering, unfocused version of Biden was also on display. At an event in a converted church turned bar in Spencer, Iowa — at the end of a long day — Biden droned on so long, even he noticed. “Too much detail Joe,” he said out loud, as he found himself mired in a soliloquy on the business potential of selling manure. Still, he kept talking for another 10 minutes.
Three decades ago, after Biden first ran for president, the journalist Richard Ben Cramer wrote about Biden’s desperate desire to connect with voters. He “could run an hour late,” said Cramer, “but if a room held one vote still hanging on the cliff edge. . .Joe would not leave. . . he’d work until he had almost every one. . . but he couldn’t stop there. . . he’d reach for the others, talk right to them. . . until BANGO!”
Little has changed since, but while Biden’s gift for the gab might have failed him then, Iowa’s voters seemed to welcome it. That’s just Joe being Joe — after all, he’s such a good man. The question that both the candidate, his supporters, and those on the fence will need to ask themselves: Is that enough?
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.