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It was a few days before Christmas 2019 and Joe Biden was lingering after a campaign stop in Ottumwa, Iowa. He had been a consistent fourth-place contender in recent weeks’ polls in the lead-off state, his campaign bus looked to be skidding toward the caucuses without a steady hand on the wheel and most of the political oxygen was being huffed by what we now know was just the first impeachment of Donald Trump. But Biden was stubbornly holding out hope, his aides were trying to project calm and most of the reporters in the back of the barns, bingo halls and busses were filling notebooks with color for the What Went Wrong? stories we had all been sketching in our minds.
But there in Ottumwa, when a woman went up to him after his Dec. 21 meeting and started to tell him about her 9-year-old daughter’s unsuccessful six-year fight with cancer, Biden’s rationale for going forward with the seemingly hapless campaign made sense. Biden put both of his hands on Jennifer Stormbern’s shoulders and whispered a message of comfort to her. Her shoulders shook a little as Biden kept his voice low, presumably talking about his late son Beau, who had died four years earlier after a fight with brain cancer.
I walked over to Stormbern after and asked her about the exchange. It was clearly an emotional moment for both her and the former Vice President in the hotel ballroom. “He’s a dad. And you never, ever get over a loss like that,” she told me. And that, she said, was one of the reasons she was paying attention to Biden’s campaign and its message of bringing decency back to the White House.
It’s only been two months, and Biden as President has already shown us that, in moments of national trauma, he is America’s Grief Counselor. On the eve of his Inauguration, Biden installed a temporary memorial along the National Mall’s Reflecting Pool to mark the 400,000 lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic. When it hit 500,000 a month later, he eulogized the lives lost while encouraging the living to keep the faith. And now, twice in the last week, Biden has again stepped forward to show the nation — and the world — how to emote through another kind of crisis. First, the killing of eight in Atlanta. Then, this week, with the killing of another 10 in Boulder, Colo.
He’s been calm but not cold. Comforting, but hardly weak.“I’ll have much more to say as we learn more, but I wanted to be clear: Those poor folks who died left behind families. That leaves a big hole in their hearts,” Biden said in the White House’s State Dining Room yesterday. Within hours, he was in Columbus, Ohio, inspecting technology to treat the exact form of brain cancer that claimed Beau Biden.
Biden has been in this role before. As my colleague Molly Ball wrote in January of 2020, right as Biden was spinning toward a disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa and a fifth-place end in New Hampshire: “For nearly a half-century, the nation has watched Biden wrestle publicly with sorrow. At countless funerals, he has eulogized Americans great and ordinary, all while nursing his own barely concealed wounds.” A New York Times review of his eulogies, collected in an oversized binder in the Biden archives, tallied them at close to 60. One of his closest friends in the Senate, Chris Coons, says Biden’s ability to comfort those weathering loss is his “superpower.”
That empathy was on constant display on the campaign trail. What he lacked in pizzaz at the front of auditoriums, he more than compensated with one-on-one connections. Biden’s resilience is as much a part of his brand as his aviator sunglasses and affinity for ice cream. In his own way, Biden is a survivor of the first order, a man who has been through ordeals that would have broken others. His advisers worried that when COVID-19 forced him to rethink how he would campaign, that he may lose this chance to connect to voters, so unique to him in 2020. Zoom didn’t really lend itself to such moments, but the reservoir of goodwill and credibility he had built was sufficient. And his rival, Trump, was no match.
Now that things are slowly starting to reset to pre-pandemic conditions, a vaccinated Biden is back in his counselor role. He’s able to escape the necessary bubble that grew around most of us and made trips to the grocery store into special events. It’s not the five-state-a-day pace that marks the end of a big campaign, but it’s also a decided upgrade from parking lots and drive-in rallies that kept people physically apart. And, in those kinds of interactions, Biden finds a connection that is rare in politics, one beyond partisanship. You can disagree with Biden on every gram of his platform, but it’s tough for even his harshest critics to question the sincerity of his heart.
“He’s got more compassion in his little finger than anyone I’ve met,” 70-year-old Mary Luce told me that same day in Ottumwa as the banisters in that hotel were wrapped in plastic garland for Christmas a few days away. “You can’t not after going through that. And that’s what would make him such a good leader.”
It turns out enough Americans made that same deal with themselves. And twice now in the last week, it’s been Biden’s turn to stand before the cameras and tell us it’s OK to be upset. After all, he knows the feeling all too well and still gets out of bed every morning, ready to believe, despite the evidence, that things will get better.
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