The president often uses identity to connect with crowds, most recently in Puerto Rico. Sometimes it may be a stretch.
By Matt Visor
“I’m a practicing Catholic, but I’d go to services on Saturday and on Sunday,” he added. Amid the laughter, he again affirmed: “You all think I’m kidding. I’m not.”
And this week, speaking to a group of Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, Biden found kinship with a different culture.
“I was sort of raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically,” he said.
Put Biden in front of a crowd, and he’ll try to connect with it — even if, at times, the connection seems to stretch the available facts. When delivering the commencement address for the U.S. Naval Academy, he claimed to have almost attended the school. When he spoke to a group of athletes in Israel, he suggested he came close to trying out as a walk-on in the NFL.
The president tries to relate to local officials with remarks about his brief tenure as a county commissioner — 50 years ago — sometimes with a tale about removing a dead animal from a constituent’s lawn. (In one version, he carts it away in a pickup truck; in another, irritated at her tone, he places it on her doorstep.)
Biden’s search for a connection also shows his approach to ethnic politics, a skill that he needed for much of his career as he sought to cater to small slices of an electorate in a small state. And it reflects his role, once he graduated to the national stage, as a glad-handing pol who has visited Little Italy in Cleveland, Chinatown in Los Angeles and Little Havana in Miami.
“I’m an honorary Greek — not only today but every day!” Biden said in 2009 before quoting Aesop, the Greek fabulist and storyteller, at a celebration of Greek Independence Day.
“We haven’t had a Greek in the White House, but now we have Joe Bidenopoulos,” the then-vice president said on another occasion. (As an April Fool’s joke last year, the Greek Reporter news site wrote a story suggesting that researchers had traced Biden’s ancestors to a Greek man named Markos Bidenopoulos who fought in the Greek War of Independence.)
While most of the mentions are innocuous, Biden has gotten in trouble before for appropriating a British politician’s family story as his own. During his 1988 presidential campaign, he slightly altered lines Neil Kinnock delivered about his Welsh coal-mining ancestors who would spend hours underground before coming up and playing football.
Biden, who delivered those lines during a debate at the Iowa State Fair, later said that he meant to credit Kinnock — but the episode helped drive him out of the race.
During his latest presidential run, his ability to relate to voters — particularly those grieving or suffering from tragedy — was central to his political strength, with voters often saying that amid ephemeral politics driven by tweets and memes, Biden’s humanizing connections drew them to overlook some of his gaffes or the attacks of his rivals.
And there were plenty of those, particularly as he sought to connect with Black voters, who made up a crucial portion of his coalition.
“I come out of a Black community, in terms of my support,” Biden said in a November 2019 primary debate. “If you notice, I have more people supporting me in the Black community that have announced for me because they know me, they know who I am.”
Responding to criticism of that comment, he said a few months later: “I’m not saying, ‘I am Black.’ But I want to tell you something — I have spent my whole career with the Black community.”
Biden also often notes that he is a son of Pennsylvania (where he was born) and also Delaware (where he moved at age 10).
“I grew up in a heavily Irish Catholic community in Scranton, Pennsylvania,” he said in 2020, “and a heavily Italian Polish community in Claymont, Delaware.”
His favorite food is Italian pasta, and Jill Biden has deep Italian roots as the country’s first Italian American first lady.
But he is few things more than Irish — an Irish Catholic with an Irish temper, by his own account, who occasionally gets his Irish up and ends up in a “black Irish” mood.
“We Irish are the only people who are nostalgic for the future,” he is fond of saying.
But he also uses his Irishness to find a connection, and not only with other Irish Americans.
“Whether it was my ancestors who boarded coffin ships in the Irish sea in the famine in the 1840s or families who fled oppressive regimes and natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said in 2020 in Florida, “all of our ancestors, yours and mine, they came equipped with only one thing — the only thing they had in their pocket was hope.”