Analysis: Joe Biden doesn't just feel your pain, he has lived it. Will that help him win?

By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

Joe Biden grieves. His voice thickens; his eyes mist over.

He recounts his life's many tragedies - death, near-death, crushing political defeat - in a way that makes them seem not only palpable but still raw.

It's not just campaigning-as-therapy, though it sometimes feels that way. Rather, the torment is central to Biden's candidacy, a mix of agony and empathy unlike any since 1992, when the emotive Bill Clinton won the White House telling distressed voters he felt their pain.

The difference is the subtext to Biden's suffering, a message befitting these angst-ridden times: He not only feels America's pandemic- and economic- and injustice-induced pain but relates by having experienced as much, if not more, pain himself.

A current TV ad recounts how Biden was sworn in to the Senate at the bedside of his two small boys, hospitalized after a car crash that killed his wife and infant daughter. One of those boys, he says, was diagnosed 40 years later with terminal brain cancer.

"I can't fathom what would have happened if the insurance companies had said for the last six months of his life, 'You're on your own,' " a gravel-voiced Biden states. "The fact of the matter is, health care is personal to me. Obamacare is personal to me."


Biden's biography is a litany of trials, which served as the centerpiece of the character study that was last month's Democratic National Convention. A debilitating stutter. Burying a wife and two children. Brain aneurysms that nearly killed him and threatened to leave him permanently disabled. Two failed runs for president.

The comparison with President Donald Trump, Democrats say, is stark.

"He knows struggle, hardship, perseverance and has come out the other side," said Jim Margolis, who produced campaign advertising for President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden and strategized for Biden's running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, in her White House bid. "Biden's ability to talk to people simply and compassionately, to listen as well as speak, to credibly say, 'I've been there, too' is a particularly powerful contrast."

By placing so much emphasis on biography - or personal narrative, as political scholar Robert Spitzer calls it - Biden has taken up a tradition that has been at the center of presidential campaigning from the start.


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