Leaders must “listen once again to the American people—all the American people”
March 2018 – Former Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at Drew University, described a breakdown in the American political system that has given rise to what he described as “naked nationalism” and “senseless populism.”
The former frames the world as us versus them while the latter places majority rule above liberty, individual rights and due process, according to Biden. The remedy, he said, is nothing short of active participation in democracy—be it voting, protesting, running for office or demanding accountability from political leaders. In short, stand up for the “moral fabric” of America.
“That moral fabric consists of decency . . . honesty, dignity and respect,” Biden told a crowd of 2,800 people at the Simon Forum and Athletic Center. “Folks, we have time. But we have to begin now to reweave those values back into our political system. And it starts with our leaders—the elected officials of both parties—they must be held accountable.”
Biden, the guest of the Thomas H. Kean Visiting Lectureship and the final speaker in the Drew Forum series of 2017-18, said Democrats and Republicans need to “talk to one another again” and “listen once again to the American people—all the American people,” adding, “My party is as much at fault as the Republican Party.”
Throughout his talk, Biden displayed an insider’s view of how government works that only someone with 44 years of political experience could offer. Indeed, his lifetime of public service—as the longest serving U.S. senator representing Delaware, vice president under President Barack Obama and now advocate for causes such as cancer research and the prevention of campus sexual assault—made him appealing to Drew, where experiential learning is core to the curriculum. As President MaryAnn Baenninger put it, “We prepare our students for the real world in the real world—through internships, courses in New York City, hands-on research projects—so Joe Biden’s can-do attitude and commitment to action are great examples of how they can take their Drew education and continue to have a positive impact on their world.”
Biden also exemplifies the belief that all politics is personal. As such, his address included stories about how he worked closely with Republicans and Democrats in Congress, a leader in China and President Obama. More than once, he also referenced his father, a salesman who told him that a job is “about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity, it’s about respect, it’s about your place in the community.”
Yes, Biden is a public figure who wears his personal life on his sleeve. At one point, he described the pain of losing his wife and daughter in a car accident in December 1972, a month before he was first sworn in to the Senate. At the time, he had just succeeded in defeating a two-term incumbent, and was about to begin a remarkable run in public office. Yet, the tragedy made him question whether he still wanted to be senator. Ultimately, he took office, but on his own terms, commuting daily between Delaware and the District of Columbia, so he could maximize the time he spent with his two sons.
Also, when Baenninger asked him during a Q&A session about the prospect of running for president again in 2020, he didn’t offer a prepackaged political soundbite. Rather, he spoke haltingly about the profound impact that the death of his son, Beau, had on him, and continues to have on him, three years later. Beau Biden, an officer in the Army who became attorney general in Delaware, succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 46.
“The healing process is working. The family is coming together. And so, I’m not trying to be coy when I said, ‘I’ve done nothing to promote running’,” Biden said. “And if the Lord Almighty came down and said today, ‘Give me your word as a Biden. The nomination is yours but you’re going to have to accept it now,’ I could not do it because I’m not sure I’m ready to go, (if) my family is ready to go.”
That doesn’t mean that he won’t feel differently early next year. But Biden, more than most, understands the unrelenting commitment and sacrifice that the presidency demands. And at this point, he’s not sure that he’s up to it. “I just don’t know. I honest to God don’t know,” he said. It was a remarkably intimate moment in a large public forum.