Why I wish Joe Biden had run for president

Service through political leadership is about offering your identity as a representation of your community. Policies, personalities and ethics come together to reflect on the identity of a politician; the choice to elect that person reflects the identity of their constituents. That’s why, independent of any one policy position he’s taken over a 40 year career in public life, I’m sad Joe Biden won’t be running for President in 2016. Few, if any, of our political leaders have put so much of themselves into their work in such a public way as Joe Biden, and fewer have represented more of what I hope represents my identity.

Identity politics often gets reduced to demographics, even though we know there’s so much more that goes into identity than census data. I identify with Biden in ways that have nothing to do with age, race, gender, zip code or socioeconomic status. Instead, I primarily identify with Joe Biden due to his impulse to use grief to drive social good and the influence of his father’s struggle to keep a roof over his head when he was young.

One of the most basic human emotions is grief, and Joe Biden has experienced more than his fair share. As a young father he buried a wife and daughter who died in a tragic car accident in 1972. Just this year he buried the son, Beau, who was supposed to carry on his legacy in public service. And who can’t identify with grief? My mother died of pancreatic cancer when I was nine years old. She had been diagnosed four years earlier and lived longer than the vast majority of pancreatic cancer patients by enrolling in clinical trials with no certainty of success and by stubbornly refusing to give up. But eventually, just like Beau, the reality of cancer caught up with her force of will and she passed away in 2001.

Biden, reflecting on the loss of his young daughter and first wife in front of a crowd in 2012 spoke of the “black hole you feel in your chest, like you’re being sucked back into it.” I strongly identify with that experience. That black hole shaped who Biden is and it certainly shaped me in ways I’ve only begun to understand. It’s a fundamental part of our identities. But he also told the crowd that it gets better. The pain never goes away but it “gets manageable” he said.

In his speech announcing he would not run for president, Biden spoke of the need for a moon shot to end cancer as we know it. He said that goal would be central to the remainder of his life in public service. My mom wanted to fight back too – joining a small organization called the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network to speak out for herself and her peers and work for change. Now I volunteer with that organization in hopes of joining in the Vice President’s goal to achieve that moon shot to cure cancer and continuing her legacy. She had a saying that I think Biden would agree with: As long as you are alive there is hope. In his speech, Biden said “if I could be anything, I would have wanted to have been the president that ended cancer, because it’s possible.” I think that’s a goal we can all relate to, as it’s a goal built on hope, for better or worse.

Joe Biden, via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Biden, via Wikimedia Commons

Biden’s undying optimism surely comes in no small part from the example of Joe Biden Sr. In then-Senator Biden’s 2012 speech to the Democratic National Convention, he recalled his father, who had fallen on hard times, leaving the family home in Scranton, PA to find work in Delaware. His father, facing uncertainty many of us have faced in the job market, told his son that “everything’s going to be fine.” It’s the same brave face we put on we walk out of a graduation ceremony without a full time offer in hand, or move to a new city for an internship in a field that may not pay much but stokes our passions. The stakes for Joe Sr. were higher with a family to feed, but the fear is palpable for all of us who have faced job insecurity in the modern job market.

Biden absorbed his father’s optimism and carried it with him for the rest of his life. Through his career he spoke eloquently about his dad’s reminder that a job is more than a paycheck. I know that from my experience too. If I don’t get a job, I can move home with my parents; I’ll never go hungry. I don’t technically need a job to survive, and for that I’m lucky. But to me a job means the ability to convince myself that tomorrow I’ll be in a better place than I am today. It means I can spoil my newborn nieces and young cousins and I never have to show up to a birthday or holiday without a small gift to show my appreciation for someone special in my life. It means I can support myself and have agency – the same goals Joe Sr. must have worked for.

In countless ways, large and small, Joe Biden has laid his identity bare for voters to accept or reject as representative of our own identities. His values about work and family are what I want my values about work and family to be. More importantly, by his example I’ve learned to articulate those values so I have a benchmark by which to hold myself accountable to who I want to be. His grief is my grief and my grief is his. The same can be said, in equal or greater measure, for our stubborn optimism. That’s how I identify with Biden despite our demographic differences. Closing his recent interview with the Vice President, Stephen Colbert told him that “it would be emotional for a lot of people if you don’t run.” He was right.

Joe Biden is fond of his father’s expressions, repeating on many occasions his dad’s saying that “A father knows he’s a success when he turns and looks at his son or daughter and know that they turned out better than he did.” Here’s my dad’s version: a parent is a success if his kids grow up to serve – in the military, in government, in their communities. I hope one day I can make my dad as proud of his work as Joe Sr. deserves to be.

Josh is a data analyst with expertise in grassroots engagement for national and local politics and a particular interest in the behavioral psychology of voting and civic engagement. He spent five years working in northern and southwest Virginia for for candidates from Blacksburg Town Council to President of the United States. In 2013 he ran a campaign that registered over 3,000 Virginia Tech students to vote for state and local candidates and tested innovative messaging and communications tactics to persuade them to make their voices heard on election day.

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