Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would make a terrible reality television show host. His answers during his ABC News town hall Thursday night were long, wordy, and often mired with the kind of detail and nuance that would immediately get him fired from any fake corporate boardroom.
But his considered takes on issues from confronting the coronavirus pandemic to renewable energy to tax reform harkened back to the Before Times, when the White House was not a conduit for conspiracy theories, misrepresentations, and vengeful rants about real and perceived political enemies. In 90 minutes, Biden demonstrated — this time without the unrelenting interruptions and gibes he endured while sharing a debate stage with President Trump two weeks ago — what it means to look and sound like a leader instead of a reality show pitchman.
And he reminded a nation rocked by an ongoing and worsening pandemic and resulting economic tumult, weary of the nonstop roller-coaster political climate that has become the hallmark of the Trump administration, just how important that difference is.
It took placing the two presidential candidates on separate stages more than a 1,000 miles apart to see the differences between them most clearly. As Biden said in the opening minutes of his event, “The words of a president matter. No matter whether they’re good, bad or indifferent — they matter.”
Biden’s exchanges with ABC News moderator George Stephanopoulos and with socially distanced voters in a Philadelphia auditorium did not send Twitter into a frenzy as Trump’s quips in Miami feigning ignorance of QAnon or calling NBC host Savannah Guthrie “so cute” did.
It’s a lot harder to capture in 280 characters how Biden looked voters in the eye, engaged with them, and offered earnest, if sometimes imperfect, responses even when he was being challenged on his record.
A young Black voter asked Biden bluntly, referencing a clumsy quip Biden made in a radio interview: “Besides, ‘You ain’t Black,’ what do you have to say to young Black voters who see you as further participation in a system that continually fails to protect them?”
Rather than the defensiveness, counterpunching, or comparisons to President Lincoln we’ve come to expect from Trump, Biden launched into a long answer that went beyond the often formulaic focus on criminal justice reform. He homed in on ways to tear down the structural barriers that prevent Black Americans from building wealth, gaining access to capital to start businesses, and earning the same kind investment of value from their homes as their white neighbors do.
When Stephanopoulos finally tried to cut off Biden’s nearly six-minute answer, seeking to turn to other subjects, Biden wasn’t done. He turned back to the voter, saying: “Well, there’s a lot more. If you hang out afterwards, I’ll tell you more.”
Biden’s goal clearly wasn’t to make headlines, though he did make some news. Asked by Stephanopoulos if he thought it was a mistake to “support” the 1994 crime bill critics say contributed to mass incarceration and aggressive policing, particularly of Black and brown Americans — Biden sponsored and coauthored the legislation — Biden said, “Yes, it was.” It was his clearest expression of regret about his role to date.
He also promised to answer — before Election Day — whether he would support an effort to “pack” the Supreme Court with more justices, and said his answer would depend on how Republicans “handle” the expedited vote planned for Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
Biden’s answers to the moderator’s and voters' questions were by no means perfect. It took two follow-up questions to get him to clearly enunciate how his administration would respond to the pandemic rather than simply ticking off the long list of Trump’s failures. And his focus on “good” and “bad” cops demonstrates a lack of understanding of the foundational systemic racism that has plagued policing since the its beginnings. But for those who tuned into Biden’s town hall looking for substance over showmanship, they found it.
In the end, as Trump’s campaign was declaring him a winner who “defeated” Guthrie, who the campaign predictably dismissed as Biden’s “surrogate,” Biden was spending the final moments of his event contemplating what losing to Trump would say about the nation.
“I hope it doesn’t say we are as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds with one another as it appears the president wants us to be,” Biden said.
At a time when many of us constantly feel like we are teetering on the brink of disaster, being pitted against one another in a dangerous death match, it was a welcome glimpse of a reality that would not be made for television.