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Apple '21: A vote for Biden, a vote for empathy

In early February, at a CNN Town Hall, Episcopalian pastor Anthony Thompson, whose wife was killed in the Charleston Church shooting, asked Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden about his faith and about how he would use it in the Oval Office. In typical Biden fashion, as soon as Townsend stood up and spoke about the shooting, Biden’s countenance became somber. He gazed at Townsend with grief plain in his eyes before answering his question and discussing how he dealt with the death of his son Beau. He also discussed the astounding forgiveness that the churchgoers showed when they forgave the white supremacist Dylann Roof for his horrific crime. The country is in pain right now, grieving over the deaths of over 210,000 people and the fractured state of our democracy. And while Biden is far from the perfect politician, his defining characteristic — his empathy — might be exactly what this country needs.

Joe Biden is no stranger to loss. While many are familiar with his son Beau’s death due to a brain tumor in 2015, he also lost his first wife and 13-month-old daughter in a car accident when he was 30 years old. When you watch him speak to those who grieve, you can see how personally it pains him. Biden knows what it’s like to lose people before their time, as too many people have because of COVID-19. Coronavirus has devastated the nation and the world, leaving once healthy people sick or dead, families in grief, our economy in disaster and many people looking to the White House to give them hope and aid. 

A recent study showed that women have been more effective leaders during the COVID crisis, in part because of their ability to empathize with people and make policies that reflect that. Biden’s empathy is not just an abstract concept. It is a proven predictor of how well he can govern. It’s the reason he stood up for same-sex marriage before the rest of the Obama administration. It’s why his response to winning the Democratic primary was to bring in progressives disaffected by his campaign and work together to create policy that they could all compromise on.

Biden has made many mistakes over his long political career, including some indefensible ones. 

In addition to the oft-cited 1994 crime bill, there are other major blemishes on his record. He harshly questioned and inarguably mishandled Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual assault during Clarence Thomas’ nomination hearings. He supported the 2005 Bankruptcy Bill, which made it harder for consumers to file for bankruptcy — a major win for credit companies. And he has supported government austerity on social security, which would hurt our most vulnerable. 

Yet it is clear that Biden, a man who has stayed at the center of the Democratic party his whole career, is interested in shifting left on vital issues. Biden has a lot of work to do to remedy past mistakes, but he also has the ability to do what others can’t — use his empathy and understanding of the American experience to unite us. 

In the first presidential debate, amidst the chaos that Trump sowed with his decidedly unprofessional and childlike performance, we saw rare instances of the kind of man Joe Biden is. Mocked by some for his stutter, which many absurdly believe suggests declining mental faculties, Biden was crispest when he ignored Trump’s barbs and looked directly into the camera. He has framed this election as a battle for the soul of the nation, and he illustrated that by speaking directly to the American people. 

He turned a disgusting, mean-spirited question about Hunter Biden and drug use into a reflection that this election is, in part, about the needs of the very people who have been impacted, directly or indirectly, by substance abuse. When Trump centered the COVID-19 portion of the debate around downplaying the effects of the virus, Biden asked Americans watching at home how many of them had lost someone due to COVID-19. You could see in his eyes that he was sincere in his words and that he cared about the suffering of the American people. It was a breath of fresh air in contrast to his opponent, who has belittled the virus, stating that 1,000 Americans dying a day is what it is and using its point of origin to spread xenophobia against the Asian community.

One of Trump’s favorite ways of handling the virus — through mockery and personal insults — speaks to the core of his character. During the debate, when Biden spoke about his son Beau who served in Iraq, Trump mistook Beau for Hunter, again choosing to attack his reputation. Mocking Clinton for getting pneumonia on the campaign trail; criticizing the family of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq; referring to Pelosi and other women as “nasty;” and mocking a disabled reporter; the list goes on. Biden’s demeanor stands in complete contrast to Trump, and while Biden’s policies have not always been correct, he has an aura of decency and kindness that suggests he will govern in the same way.

In these trying times, we need what we’ve always needed: a Democratic senate that works to pass legislation on voting rights reform, criminal justice reform and education reform; progressive state legislatures that employ a bottom-up approach and place people at the center of their policy; and greater accountability from the people who enjoy the privileges of power in our society, so they may not act with impunity. But perhaps right now we also need a chief executive who embodies competence, compassion and empathy, so that we can not only ensure a return to unity, but also build back better and create a nation that’s worthy of being called great.

Caleb Apple ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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