Editor’s Note: Marion Steinfels, a public affairs consultant, was Joe Biden’s deputy communications director during his 2008 presidential campaign. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
I’ll never forget the first time Joe Biden got a little close. Not long after joining his 2008 campaign for president, I found myself on a small plane with him traveling from a town in Iowa to O’Hare International Airport. Just as the plane started taxiing, he grabbed hold of my arm and became very animated.
I was caught off guard and, honestly, maybe a little uncomfortable for a moment. He told me a story of a time in high school when he was supposed to go to a big dance. His shirt needed cuff links, but he had none. He was devastated until his mother ran to the toolbox and got two nuts and bolts that would do the job.
As the plane hit its cruising altitude, what was happening became clear. Someone had told him about my terrible fear of flying, and he was trying to distract and reassure me and, in a way that did not make me feel condescended to or silly for having such a fear. That is who Joe Biden is.
In the midst of an incredibly tough primary campaign for president, he was always aware of those around him and their needs. I saw it throughout the campaign and, quite frankly, sometimes it made me a little crazy.
Why was he worrying about whether I was driving by myself through a snowstorm to get to an event we were having the next day? Why would he try to grab our bags when we, as his staff, should be carrying his? He was a presidential candidate for goodness sake!
It’s just who he is. It’s also who his family is. His wife, Jill, would tear out articles on conquering fear of flying and share them with me to help defuse my angst. His niece and sister, who also worked on the campaign, would have us over for a home-cooked meal after weeks on the road.
And after high-stress events that appeared to have taken a toll on staff, his sons would call to check in and provide some words of encouragement. That’s who they are, too.
While I am not questioning anyone else’s experiences with Biden – and at times it may have caused discomfort – there is no doubt in my mind that his penchant for showing affection has absolutely nothing to do with him not respecting a woman’s agency over her own body.
He grabs people’s arms, puts his hands on their shoulders and whispers encouragements in their ear. I saw it with both men and women, young and old. While we all remember him grasping President Barack Obama in a tight hug and whispering in his ear, “This is a big f—ing deal,” that was by no means a one-off. Do a quick internet image search of “Obama Biden” and then “Bush Cheney,” and it will show clearly: Biden’s affectionate style is far from limited to women.
There are countless images of Biden and Obama’s brotherly bear hugs, clasped hands and close-in whispers. (The same search of Bush and Cheney could not tell a more different story.)
In this era of #MeToo, when we are finally free to share our experiences and stories and no longer be the ones to feel shame for what was done to us, it is incredibly important that we differentiate.
With Biden, it is not about objectifying women or asserting male dominance; it’s about doing what he can to encourage others and make them feel comfortable – especially in stressful and overwhelming situations.
We see this again in his response to these recent accounts. He has made clear he is willing to listen to his critics and learn from them. My experiences tell me he is sincere in this commitment.
This is who Joe Biden is and why so many Americans adore him. Even after reaching the height of political success, he and his family are still just regular people – they are focused as much on those around them as they are on themselves.