President Biden has been leaning hard into his role as the nation’s empathizer-in-chief as he contends with multiple tragedies during his first month in office.
Biden will travel to Texas on Friday with first lady Jill Biden as the state grapples with the effects of deadly and rare winter storms.
The trip follows a moment of silence Monday and a candle-lit tribute from the White House to the 500,000 Americans who died of COVID-19. Standing in the White House Cross Hall, Biden addressed the country not only as president but as a man who is deeply familiar with loss.
“I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens,” Biden said, standing alongside the first lady as well as Vice President Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff.
“I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it,” he said.
Biden, who ran his presidential campaign on uniting a country grappling with a deadly pandemic, has been touched by grief multiple times throughout his political career, losing his wife and infant daughter in a car crash, and decades later, his son to brain cancer.
His political brand increasingly has been one in which his supporters cast the 78-year-old president as a messenger of empathy and the right man for the moment.
Biden’s remarks on Monday stood in clear contrast to the approach that his predecessor, former President Trump, took to the pandemic.
“Empathy is the superpower that helped distinguish Joe Biden through the primaries and in his general election match-up against Donald Trump,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “It’s no surprise that this is a core part of his profile as president one month in.”
Trump was regularly criticized for lacking empathy in talking about the pandemic, which he regularly downplayed. He did not make a special effort to mark the lives lost from the coronavirus, which Trump often saw as a political crisis that he blamed on China — where the first clusters of cases were found.
When the U.S. surpassed 100,000 million dead last May, Trump tweeted condolences a day later.
Biden has made a concerted push to acknowledge the pain of the pandemic. On the eve of his inauguration, Biden participated in a memorial for those who had died from the coronavirus at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
“This is part of the return to normalcy,” said Doug Heye, former Republican National Committee spokesman, noting Biden’s visit over the weekend to former GOP Sen. Bob Dole, who recently revealed his stage four lung cancer diagnosis. “That is a marked contrast to what we’ve seen from the past four years and was a selling point for Biden in the campaign.”
The challenge for Biden and his administration, Heye said, would be to also communicate hopeful messages that motivate enough Americans to get the coronavirus vaccine so that the country can return to a degree of normal life.
Biden’s push for unity and compassion has also been scrutinized in his nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Lawmakers opposed to her nomination have complained that her past inflammatory tweets do not represent the unity that Biden espoused on the campaign trail.
“Given how much they’ve leaned on, and I think rightly, that he’s trying to make America good again and will be that consoler in chief that Americans have looked at president to be … it will be even more important for him to always toe that line because when he doesn’t those examples will be glaring,” Heye said.
Those who have worked with Biden describe him as someone who genuinely cares about others and who has sought to make personal connections with those he meets throughout his career, regardless of their background or identity.
On the campaign trail, he was known to hand out his phone number to grieving mothers. He’ll offer reassuring words on rope lines and at events. He’s even been known to pray with supporters.
Moe Vela, a former aide to Biden during the Obama administration, said that advisers often left a 10-minute buffer for Biden when he would walk through the back of a restaurant through the kitchen, because he would always stop and say “hello” to staff.
“They love you first and ask questions later,” Vela said of the president and first lady, describing them as “unconditional lovers.”
Biden has taken a noticeably behind-the-scenes approach to the situation in Texas and surrounding states amid the bout of extreme winter weather. He approved emergency declarations in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma and held phone calls with governors last week, signing a major disaster declaration for Texas on Saturday that authorized more federal resources for the response.
While the White House said he was regularly briefed on the situation, Biden has not yet delivered extended remarks on the storms, and Friday’s visit to Houston will represent his first opportunity to do so.
At the White House press briefing on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden is expected to meet with local leaders to discuss the winter storm relief efforts, the progress communities are making toward recovery and “the incredible resilience shown by the people of Houston and Texas.”
A longtime Biden aide added that “there is no one better to provide comforting words” to a state reeling from the storms in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s become a bit cliche, but he was made for this,” the aide said.