This past Wednesday, in Burlington, Iowa, Joe Biden gave a speech to address what he and his Presidential campaign are solemnly calling “the Battle for the Soul of Our Nation.” A response to the gun massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the previous weekend, his speech began with the declaration that “the words of a President matter.” This was the Biden that he and his campaign want the country to see: confident, direct, the anti-Donald Trump. “In both clear language and in code, this President has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation,” the former Vice-President said. “His low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week I don’t believe fooled anyone.”
A day later, in Des Moines, Biden addressed a group called the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition, an organization that was started a few years ago to advocate for minority communities in a state that is ninety per cent white. The event took place at a plumbers-and-steamfitters union hall, in a stuffy room crammed with coalition members, the general public, campaign staff, and press. About twenty minutes into his remarks, Biden turned to the issue of education. “Does anybody here think that twelve years of education is enough for the twenty-first century?” he said. “I don’t know anybody who thinks that.” He called for increased funding to Title I schools, increased teacher pay, and universal pre-K. “We have this notion that, somehow, if you’re poor, you cannot do it,” he said, speaking of academic success, before adding, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” There were groans in the room, and a smattering of hesitant applause. Biden quickly corrected himself. “Wealthy people,” he said. “Black kids. Asian kids.” Within moments, reporters had put the quote on their Twitter feeds. Trump’s campaign, delighted, clipped the video and tweeted about it, too.
Biden has a history of talking about race in ways that make him look, at best, like an old and out-of-touch white guy. At an Upper East Side fund-raiser, in June, he spoke warmly of his days in the Senate working alongside segregationists. “At least there was some civility,” he said. Those words set off weeks of discussion about whether Biden, despite his lead in the polls and his decades at the heights of power in Washington, was the right person to lead the Democratic Party’s repudiation of a President who has championed racism and nativism. With Biden’s “poor kids” comment getting immediate attention, his campaign tried to get ahead of the story by putting out a statement, saying, “Vice President Biden misspoke and immediately corrected himself during a refrain he often uses to make the point that all children deserve a fair shot.”
But the story was bigger than the single quote. Biden misspoke several times during his trip to Iowa—the state where, in 1987, his first run for the Presidency fell apart, after he plagiarized Neil Kinnock, the former British Labour Party leader, in his stump speech. At the Iowa State Fair, on Thursday, he screwed up one of his new slogans, telling a crowd, “We choose truth over facts!” At the Asian and Latino Coalition, he referred to Margaret Thatcher when he meant Theresa May, and spoke of using biofuels to power “steamships.” (On Monday, the group announced that it had decided to endorse Kamala Harris.) On Saturday, after an appearance at a gun-control forum hosted by Moms Demand Action, Biden told reporters that the students who survived the shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year “came up to see me when I was Vice-President,” even though the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School occurred a year after Biden left the White House. The media narrative soon became, simply, What about those gaffes?
A political gaffe, in a definition once offered by the writer and editor Michael Kinsley, is “when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” In this sense, although Biden has described himself as a “gaffe machine,” his problem isn’t gaffes. When Representative Kevin McCarthy crowed, in 2015, that the Republican Party’s partisan investigations of the Benghazi attack had succeeded in hurting Hillary Clinton’s popularity—that was a gaffe. In contrast, Biden’s misstatements this weekend weren’t “obvious truths.” They were ugly confusions, maybe, or embarrassing flubs—the press, the public, and even Biden’s surrogates spent a few days searching for the right way to describe them. On Friday, Tim Winter, the chairman of the local county Democratic Party, introduced Biden at a fairgrounds event, in a town called Boone. “Let’s talk about Joe Biden’s heart,” Winter said. “The media sometimes calls these gaffes, or slipups. And what they really are is a man with a good heart showing his caring leadership, even when it is politically incorrect to do so.”
Trump’s supporters made similar arguments in 2016. We take him seriously, they said, not literally. Obviously, Trump and Biden are not comparable, politically or personally, but it is becoming easier to imagine that, if Biden does become the Democratic nominee, the Party and its supporters will be in for months of apologizing and explaining things away. After this weekend, Biden’s campaign criticized national reporters for focussing on Biden’s words at the expense of the issues. But Biden’s the one out there every day saying that “words matter.” Maybe that’s the gaffe. In Boone, the Washington Post reporter Matt Visor took a photograph of Biden standing to the side of the event as he prepared to speak, his arms draped over a fence, his head bowed, his aviators on. It was a look of quiet confidence, a reminder of the Biden of Wednesday. “America is an idea, an idea—it’s bigger than any ocean,” Biden said during his remarks. “The only thing that can take America down is America.” At that moment, a red S.U.V. drove past the event site. “Biden sucks!” the driver yelled out his window.
The last public event of Biden’s Iowa trip was on Saturday afternoon, in Central City, about a half hour north of Cedar Rapids, where he spoke at a fund-raiser for local Democrats. His campaign has been careful with how much time Biden gives to reporters and the unfiltered public, but in Central City Biden stuck around, lingering outside the venue as people came up to him with questions and requests for selfies. A mother and daughter told him about a struggle that the daughter, who might have been in high school or college, was facing. In response, Biden said, “Everybody has something to deal with.” He spoke of a stutter that he lived with in his youth. “It’s the only sort of generic impediment that people still laugh at—when someone does that. But it is debilitating. It makes you feel like you can’t be smart. Like you must be some kind of idiot,” he said. He was standing with his hands on his hips, holding eye contact with the mother and daughter, confiding in them, speaking of how he’d overcome certain challenges, but also of how he still lived with them. “It’s hard to ask a girl to go to p-p-prom,” he said, stuttering for effect. He spoke about his mother. “Even though she was no speech therapist, she’d say, ‘Joey, look at me. Read your studies. You’re so smart,’ ” he said. “But it’s all about confidence. Giving people confidence. Because there’s—everybody has something to deal with. Everybody.”