This past Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted out a video. It’s in response to, by now, four women expressing various degrees of discomfort regarding his proclivity for touching, nuzzling and otherwise invading women’s personal space—typically, at or near the podium during public events. It’s a brief, 2-and-a-half-minute video in which Biden tries to informally lay to rest concerns that in the era of the #MeToo movement he’s a dinosaur, out-of-touch about his being inappropriately too much in touch with various female members of the Democratic party in particular.
How well did Biden do non-verbally in delivering his message?
First, there’s no doubt he’s uneasy and no longer trying to glide by the matter as he essentially did in suggesting the handling of Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991 was somehow a matter beyond his control as chair of the U.S. Senate’s judiciary committee. On camera, Bid’s eyebrows rise and the eyebrows knit together: all reliable signs of fear. This look ironically occurs as he admits to having made these four women (and probably others) “uncomfortable.” Now, he’s the one who’s uncomfortable.
That brings us to point #2. What exactly is Biden most uncomfortable about? Is it for what he’s done in the past? Or is it about his political future instead? The video leaves little doubt that Biden plans to run for the presidency. “I will be more mindful” going forward, he says, adding a smile to what was previously pretty much pure fear.
In this video, Biden lives up to his reputation for being a retail politician who truly believes that “life is about connecting.” That’s point #3. There are two primary approach emotions: happiness (to hug) and anger (to hit). In delivering his semi-apology, Biden exhibits both frequently. This trait also goes beyond his facial expressions to body language in general. He incongruously says “I hug people” while showing a fist. Later, his hands are outstretched in a more kindly manner.
Any rival of Biden’s for the Democratic party nomination in 2020 will want to take special note of one moment especially. When Biden says “the idea that I can’t adjust” is “unthinkable,” I think he’s signaling first and foremost to the party faithful that he won’t be elbowed aside over this matter. Knitted eyebrows (fear), tightened lips (anger), and a smile (happiness) are all evident at that moment. But so is a smirk (contempt): Biden is signaling—point #4—that he disrespects anybody disrespecting him after all his years of public service.
Point #5 must be, of course, the question of whether Biden comes across as credible in this video. If the video is successful (and it has already received over 160,000 likes online), then it will be for adding in the third approach emotion: sadness (a longing to hug or be hugged). That emotion is about feeling forlorn, disappointed, abandoned, unsure of yourself. Biden claims that’s why he’s invaded these women’s personal space: on behalf of delivering the message that “you can do this,” run for office, be empowered.
In simplest terms in regards to others, sadness expressed denotes often a capacity for empathy for others. From the death of his first wife and a daughter in a traffic accident to the death from brain cancer of his son Beau, Biden has had his share of tragedy. So when he says “knowing what I’ve been through” in this video, that his eyes momentarily shut conveys a sadness that’s been earned the hard way.
The interesting part for Biden now is that for him the prospect of running and perhaps losing, for a third time, the Democratic party nomination becomes one more possible brush with disaster. He’s way beyond being old enough to retire. He doesn’t have to throw his hat into the ring. Donald Trump shows sadness, too, but it’s mostly related to wanting more acclaim and rarely about America or others in his life. Some candidates smile. Lots of candidates do anger. If Biden is going to prevail, it’s because he might be unique in public life right now for his ability to incorporate both happiness and sadness, without making it seem like he’s merely vacillating, pointlessly, between those two emotions.