Editor’s Note: Nayyera Haq is a host on SiriusXM Progress and CEO of an international communications firm. She served in the Obama administration as a senior adviser in the State Department and a senior director in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
The mythos of Joe Biden is built around the advice given by parents of a certain age. “Hard work will get you ahead”: Biden overcame his childhood stutter by practicing speaking in front of the mirror. He received a scholarship and worked during law school to later become one of the youngest US senators at age 30. “You need to commit and follow through”: Biden served in the Senate for more than 35 years. “Chin up, be resilient”: When his first wife and daughter died in a horrific accident, Biden famously commuted from Delaware to Washington every day in order to spend time with his sons.
Biden’s persona appeals to the sensibilities of an elder generation and the character traits they admire. This identity is a big part of Biden’s pitch, one rooted in nostalgia for a bygone era: It’s Trump’s Make America Great Again, skewed toward decency and civility.
But Biden also exemplifies the worst qualities of our parents’ generation. Apologies don’t come easy to him. When Biden spoke to Anita Hill to express “his regret for what she endured” at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings in 1991, he didn’t accept any personal accountability as the committee chairman. Hill, who did not think Biden’s words amounted to an apology, said she was dissatisfied by his efforts. To make matters worse, Biden later appeared on ABC’s “The View” and said, “I don’t think I treated her badly.”
And like the uncles and aunties who pinched our cheeks and demanded hugs, Biden still seems baffled by the concept of personal space and boundaries. After a former Nevada assemblywoman wrote an essay claiming Biden made her feel “uneasy, gross and confused” when he kissed the back of her head, several women spoke out about their experiences and said he made them uncomfortable. Biden issued a statement saying that he never believed he acted inappropriately.
On Twitter last month, he said he was able to recognize that “social norms are changing.” But he clearly failed to grasp the gravity of the cultural moment given his jokes about consent at his next public event. These aren’t the endearing gaffes or the goofy slips of the tongue we saw from Uncle Joe when he was President Obama’s vice president. These are the signs of a man who has not been able to keep pace with shifts in modern culture.
Biden is also of a generation that places a priority on civility and smoothing over individual differences for the benefit of the larger group. Younger generations, and millennials in particular, are into authenticity, calling out inappropriate behavior, and defining people by what they believe.
Biden harkens back to an era when politics was a gentleman’s club for Democrats and Republicans to pal around while having intellectual disagreements on policy. It was easy for Biden to call Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy,” and he often refers to his Republican friends. But people have grown impatient with calls to reach across the aisle simply for the sake of bipartisanship; those who use their power to systematically deny women and minorities their basic rights are not “decent” people. While Biden defaults to assuming decency in politicians like Pence, we need politicians to prove they believe in their constituents’ basic humanity.
Biden, like many other members of his generation, often dismisses the challenges young people face today. In 2018, when discussing the challenges of dealing with upheaval in society, Biden said, “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are – give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it. Give me a break.”
Biden may be the obvious candidate among older white voters who can be swayed by nostalgia. But with Generation X and millennials making up the majority heading into 2020, Biden’s greater concern should be building a cross-generational coalition and advancing the Obama baton of “change we can believe in.”
The irony is that so many of the forces that shaped Biden’s (and Bernie Sanders’ ) generation have shaped ours as well. That cohort had Vietnam; we grew up with the never-ending war in Afghanistan. Biden saw the start of the Civil Rights Movement; we’re still trying to make Black Lives Matter. Economic insecurity is part of both our stories; millennials will be the first generation since the Great Depression to struggle to buy homes and see a decline in income. He saw Nixon facing impeachment; we now have calls to impeach Trump.
When it comes to standing up to the President, a man who is the distillation of the worst impulses of an earlier era, Democrats can send one of Trump’s generational compatriots to the general election as an antidote.
The challenge is to acknowledge and rectify problems we seek to address; systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and inequity are rooted in the decisions of the older generations. At best, these issues were once glossed over by the general public. At worst, they were exacerbated by policies like the war on drugs, which created a generation of felons for minor drug offenses; the 1994 crime bill (which Biden and Sanders both voted for) that disproportionately affected black communities; and a 2005 bankruptcy bill that Biden promoted over the objections of unions, consumer groups and women’s groups, making it harder for people to reboot after financial hardship.
All of these policies are part of Biden’s political legacy; he wasn’t on the sidelines, he was an established political leader. Proving Biden has undergone a personal and political evolution to confront the current problems plaguing our society will require a level of introspection and reckoning our parents aren’t used to exhibiting to their young’uns.
Get our free weekly newsletter
However much we’d like to move past the bitter partisanship that has taken hold in the past few years, moving our country forward isn’t about harking back to a bygone era. We all know that Biden wasn’t born “woke;” most of our elders have faced the same challenge when it comes to combating structural racism, understanding consent between men and women and accepting the LGBTQ community.
But we need someone who can offer us more than a warm hug and a comforting pat on the back – we will not be satisfied unless we see a real effort to make change. The 2020 election is about who will lead us in the America We Have Now, in all its complexity and contradiction. Candidates need to start by acknowledging that the strategies of yesteryear will not work today, taking responsibility for the decisions and policies that brought us to this point and working to bring in new voices and ideas to uplift us all. While we might be willing to accept these generational flaws in our elders, we should hold Biden and his cohorts to a higher standard.