This Isn’t How Joe Biden Wanted to Win

What happens when the virtuoso retail campaigner can’t do any retail campaigning?

Joe and Jill Biden, masked, look at the American flag.
Andrew Harnik / AP

WILMINGTON, Del.—In a diner not far from here, in April 2016, Joe Biden was on one knee, looking into the eyes of a girl with Down syndrome, talking with her so quietly that only she could hear. He was locked in, like he couldn’t see or hear anything else, for a few seconds at the end of a campaign stop that could not possibly have produced enough votes to justify the amount of time he spent there. He held the girl’s hands. Then, gently, he said, “I’ve got to talk to Mom and Dad about something,” and as he stood, he leaned in and kissed the girl on the forehead. Then he got back to promoting his candidate ahead of a Senate primary the next day.

On Wednesday night, after Kamala Harris finished her speech and the former vice president popped onstage for a scripted “surprise” visit, Biden remembered the pandemic enough to refrain from actually embracing his new running mate. But he forgot about it enough that he was halfway through blowing her a kiss before he caught himself and turned the gesture into a hands-raised cheer.

Biden is a retail-politics virtuoso. People call him the last of his kind, but that doesn’t quite nail it. He’s pretty much the only politician of his kind. He’s the complete extrovert. No one in American politics feeds off of human energy like he does. (The physical closeness with which he approaches people has led to several women saying that he went too far in touching them, though most have said that he wasn’t intentionally going too far.)

Biden stood at his son Beau’s wake for more than 10 hours, accepting other mourners’ condolences while much younger aides rotated to recover in the pews. When he was vice president, the Secret Service would often cover up the windows of rooms he was in while he was on the road for events—not as a safety precaution, but to keep Biden from catching sight of the crowds outside and insisting on going out to greet the people who had lined up to see him.

This week, Biden finally got the presidential nomination he’d been chasing for more than 40 years, across three campaigns he ran and three more he almost ran. But he got it under conditions that forced him to be something less than his full self.

Because of the quirks of the primary calendar, the pandemic shutdown began at just the moment when Biden became unstoppable in the primaries. He had a big rally in Detroit on March 9, then landed in Cleveland on March 10, only to get right back on the plane and fly home, abiding by the Ohio governor’s advice that the rally he had planned for that night was too risky.

As Donald Trump and his allies like to note, Biden has been mostly stuck in his basement since. And though he’s committed to being careful—for his own sake and to set an example for others—aides and others who have been talking with him tell me that he’s sad and frustrated to be sidelined. Trump stopped by a pizza place in Pennsylvania yesterday and showed off the pie he bought. It was striking to see a man who almost never does retail politics decide to give it a whirl. In a normal campaign, Biden would probably have been stopping for food and handshakes and selfies (he likes to work the iPhones himself) at every stop. There would, most definitely, have been a lot of ice-cream cones. He’d be sliding into restaurant booths next to old ladies, talking about cars and jobs and Tastykakes. On one of the last nights before February’s Iowa caucus, when he and everyone else on his campaign knew he was about to get crushed, I saw him happily working the bar at an American Legion hall in Ottumwa, next door to the room where he’d just delivered a listless, useless speech. Biden heard that a man on a stool at the end of the bar was in his 90s, and made him take out his license to prove it. It must have been the most fun a lifelong teetotaler could have around a beer tap.

Biden didn’t get balloons dropping from the ceiling at the end of his convention speech. He didn’t even get to have his family in the room to watch. There was no crowd. There were no cheers. All Biden got was about 20 reporters, sitting on chairs in the dark, staring at the halo of light the producers put around him for his speech.

The Democrats did organize fireworks in a parking lot outside the convention center where Biden spoke on a special little stage assembled for a makeshift attempt at near-normalcy. For a moment, Biden forgot himself and grabbed Harris’s hand, lifting it up in the traditional candidates-in-unity pose—precisely the kind of touching they have carefully been avoiding at events since he picked her. He quickly realized his mistake, and dropped her hand. Then, right as the fireworks finale was letting rip, he decided to just go for it, and deliberately grabbed her hand to raise it again, this time holding it up for all the time the photographers needed to get the shot.

In front of Biden were rows and rows of cars with people cheering, honking their horns, and waving American flags, part of the drive-in audience for the rare part of this pandemic convention that was actually live. He couldn’t go out to greet those people, though—because he would risk infection, and because the Secret Service protection he now has would never be able to keep him safe in a lot full of cars.

So Biden and Harris went back inside, away from the people he wanted to see.

Just before they walked away, Biden looked down at the clump of reporters, all of us tested three days in a row for COVID-19, none of us more than about six inches away from one another. This wasn’t the convention he had dreamed of, but it was the only way he was going to get a national political convention in his hometown. He pulled down his mask for a moment, talking to us because we were the only Americans he could get close enough to talk to. “Welcome to Wilmington!” he said, and he smiled.