In his first public appearance since seven women complained about his past behaviour, former Vice President Joe Biden could have issued an apology during his remarks. He could have even given a speech without mentioning the issue. Instead, he chose to make not one, but two jokes about the lines women said he crossed and the topic of consent.
As he took the stage to deliver his remarks at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference in Washington, D.C., Biden hugged Lonnie Stephenson, the union’s president. Immediately after he said: “I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie.” The crowd, mostly made up by men, laughed and clapped.
He took another jab at the allegations after welcoming some children to the stage. Biden wrapped his arm around a boy and then said: "By the way, he gave me permission to touch him." The remarks made it seem like his first joke was less of a gaffe and more of a calculated effort.
All the women who’ve spoken up have emphasised that Biden’s behaviour — smelling their hair and kissing the back of their head, a hand on the thigh, grabbing the face and pulling it close as if he would kiss them on the mouth, and other incidents in mostly professional settings — did not constitute sexual harassment or a criminal act. But they've asked for Biden to recognise that he's often breached the personal space of others without consent, which has been demeaning because of the obvious imbalance of power. Therefore, it's necessary to have a conversation about how that behaviour has never been acceptable.
Despite his past work on the issue of sexual assault and violence against women, Biden is having none of it. In his previous statements, the former vice president said he would more carefully listen to women from now on. At the same time, his team has gone at great lengths to discredit the allegations. He has also refused to directly apologise to the women who have accused him of inappropriate behaviour. Following his speech on Friday, he indicated that would not change.
“The fact of the matter is I made it clear that if I made anyone feel uncomfortable, I feel badly about that. That was never my intention,” Biden said. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more. I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything I’ve ever done.” These non-apology apologies, and refusal to acknowledge women's experiences instead of his own feelings, echo his refusal to recognise how he failed Anita Hill.
Lucy Flores, who first spoke up about her experience with Biden in an essay for The Cut, was quick to react on Twitter. "It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable," Flores tweeted. "To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have."
It's impossible to separate the blue-collar, everyday man persona Biden will adopt as a 2020 presidential candidate (he plans to announce later this month) from the mostly-male crowd before him at the conference. In making fun of the seven women who've complained about him, Biden crystallised that his strategy to capture some voters potentially will be to join their laments that the post-#MeToo world has gone too far.
“We’ve gotten so damn sophisticated. We’ve gotten so damn elitist,” Biden told the crowd during his remarks. “I hate the way things have changed over the last 15 to 20 years.”
One has to wonder if that includes women's ability to speak up these days about unacceptable behaviour such as his.