Having entered the United States Senate in 1973, Joe Biden has been a fixture of American public life for decades. Thanks to his tenure as vice president in the Obama administration, the longtime Senator’s stature has only grown throughout the past decade — making him one of the country’s best-known liberal politicians and a prospective leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Biden’s real, if superficial, appeal rests heavily on his image as an affable, blue-collar everyman at once populist and easygoing: an image arguably shaped more by social media and cable TV than by reality. Indeed, you might even say that there are two Joe Bidens: one a character, the other a real-life politician.
The first is essentially a meme: a kind of funny national uncle, amiable and well-meaning, self-deprecating, and slightly mischievous in a harmless sort of way. This is the Biden who bros-out with his best buddy Barack Obama in viral tweets, makes cameos on your favourite shows, and is the subject of affectionate caricatures on late-night TV. It’s also the one which inspired The Onion’s long-running character Diamond Joe, the subject of headlines like: “Biden Huddling With Closest Advisers on Whether to Spend 200 Bucks on Scorpions Tickets”; “Biden Worries Legalized Weed In D.C. Will Cut Into His Business" and “Biden Offers Government to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.” As the Washington Post’s Michael Cavna put it in 2017, Diamond Joe is a “rugged, easygoing classic metal-head who favors biker babes, Whitesnake T-shirts and a sixer of Schlitz.”
While few people are likely to mistake Diamond Joe for the real-life Biden (a devout Catholic who reportedly doesn’t even drink), the meme-ified version of the former vice president has nevertheless increasingly come to define his public image. And that’s a problem, given how little resemblance Biden the real-world politician — a notoriously gaffe-prone Senator who has spent the majority of his career as a hawkish, somewhat socially conservative Democrat — has to his mostly likeable, laid-back, and apolitical cultural avatar.
The real Joe Biden got into politics opposing busing, a vital de-segregation measure he dismissed in the 1970s as “the atom bomb of anti-discrimination weapons”. Throughout his subsequent career as a US Senator, he would go on to champion several pieces of legislation that disproportionately targeted black Americans and helped institutionalise mass incarceration including 1994’s infamous Crime Bill, then boasting on the Senate floor: “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties… The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops...The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new State prison cells.” As recently as 2007, Biden still called the bill his “greatest accomplishment.”
Biden’s populist, blue-collar image is likewise difficult to reconcile with his long-standing proximity to corporate and financial interests and propensity to defend the ultra-rich. In 1979, after receiving donations from Coca-Cola, for example, Biden co-sponsored legislation that helped the soft-drink industry skirt antitrust laws. In the 1990s he voted against several measures aimed at the regulation of credit card companies, one of which (MBNA) just happened to be his largest single donor throughout the decade. Even as issues like corporate power and economic inequality have increasingly entered the mainstream for Democrats, Biden has insisted: “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble. The folks at the top aren’t bad guys.”
The list goes on and on. From having a decidedly mixed record on pro-choice legislation, casting a vote for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, expressing his fondness for noted torture proponent Dick Cheney, and declaring anti-LGBTQ Republican vice president Mike Pence a “decent guy”, Biden the politician has never really resembled the innocuous caricature that’s flourished on social media. But should he indeed enter the race, it’s Biden the conservatively minded politician, not Biden the harmless internet meme, who will ultimately be running for president.
In deciding who they should nominate to take on Donald Trump, Democrats would therefore do well to grapple with his actual record — and relegate smiling Diamond Joe to retirement where he belongs.
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