On Friday, March 24, former Vice President Joe Biden told Colgate students, families, staff and faculty, that he regrets not being President of the United States.
“Do I regret not being president? Yes. Do I regret not running for president? In light of what was going on in my life at the time, no I don’t regret it. I made the right decision,” Biden said.
Several national news networks picked up this portion of Biden’s lecture at Colgate, part of the Kerschner Family Series Global Leaders at Colgate, which has, in past years, hosted notable guests such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Following a speech on the unraveling of the middle class in the midst of a digital revolution, Biden sat down with President Brian Casey, and spoke about his decision not to run for president in 2016.
In August 2013, his son, Beau Biden, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in the brain. At the time of diagnosis, the cancer was stage four. The younger Biden died in May 2015, after a recurrence of the brain cancer.
“I had planned on running for president,” the former Vice President said. “Although it would have been a very difficult primary, I think I could’ve won. I don’t know. Maybe not.”
Biden said he planned to announce whether or not he would run by the fall of 2015, and in deciding long after other candidates, the press began to think he was playing a guessing game.
“I couldn’t tell them about my boy,” Biden said. “He didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for him.”
Though Biden said he believed he could have brought a country in need of unity together, he knew that because of what was going on with his son at the time, he was not the best qualified person for the job.
“I didn’t run because no man or woman should announce for President of the United States unless they can look the public in the eye and say, ‘I promise you, I’m giving 100 percent of my attention and dedication to this effort.’ I knew I couldn’t do that,” Biden said.
In his answer to Casey’s first question about his decision not to run, Biden spoke in a soft, somber tone, clearly thinking carefully through each word he uttered.
In his lecture preceding the Q&A session, however, he offered an impassioned plea on behalf of the working middle class man.
Biden presented the phenomenon of the fourth Industrial Revolution – defined by exponential scientific and technological advancement in recent and coming years – as both an opportunity for growth and a real danger to job security for middle class workers.
According to Biden, automated warehouses, artificial intelligence and even online shopping make Americans more productive. That productivity, however, may come at the cost of the workers whose jobs are eliminated through technological advancement.
“I believe, on balance, these transformations are changes for the benefit of humanity,” Biden said. “They can benefit the average person, by bringing exciting new choices to consumers, to new kinds of jobs that, hopefully, are good paying for workers. But these changes are going to come with real peril. And they’re going to require us, in government and in society, to be proactive, at the front end of this exponential change that we’re expecting to occur.”
Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1942, told the now-familiar story of his father losing his job in Scranton and leaving his siblings with their grandfather for a short time to go find work in Wilmington, Delaware, the city to which they would all eventually relocate.
“Ever since that experience with my father, my siblings and I heard repeatedly, when any man or woman would lose a job – a friend, a neighbor, somebody – my dad would say, ‘Joey, remember – a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect,’” Biden said.
Although it’s a narrative that Biden repeated throughout the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, it still rang true in light of one takeaway of the 2016 election – that Clinton lost middle class voters to Donald Trump. The Pew Research Center recorded President Obama winning 53 percent of middle-income communities in 2008, while Clinton was only able to hold onto 48 percent of that vote last November.
In the question and answer session with Casey, Biden said that he believed that part of the reason Clinton lost the election was because the average, middle class worker was crying out for help, and the Democrats didn’t hear him.
“She got three million more votes than [Trump] did, notwithstanding his math,” Biden said. “But it mattered on the margins. It mattered a lot.”
Biden’s lecture focused on improving the state of the middle class, not just to win their vote in the next election, but to ease their struggle and improve standards of living in the meantime.
Biden prescribed “five core pillars” to build off of in the coming years to ensure that the fourth Industrial Revolution results in a net benefit for humanity. Those pillars include increased access to affordable education and job training, continued assurance of basic protections and benefits for workers, a concerted effort to modernize infrastructure, a more progressive tax bill and expanded access to capital.
During the lecture, he expounded upon each pillar in great detail, emphasizing the importance of education that can keep up with the pace of technological advancement, a tax code that requires everybody to pay proportionally their fair share and a clearer path for entrepreneurs and small businesses to take their ideas from their heads, to the market.
“I know in Washington, I’m referred to as Middle Class Joe,” Biden said. “In Washington, that’s not meant as a compliment. It means, ‘he’s not that sophisticated.’ But I’m sophisticated enough to know what built this country. What makes us unique among all democracies.”
Biden went on to describe the meaning of America as possibility, but some students in attendance felt his speech focused unevenly on possibilities for the middle class.
Student Government Association (SGA) President Matthew Swain said he was a bit taken aback to hear the former Vice President describe the foundation of the United States as a white, middle class family making around $90,000 a year.
“He framed this as, ‘this was the history of America, and these are the individuals who built this country, and are struggling, and are struggling the most,’ which I was surprised about,” Swain said. “I don’t find these to be the individuals who are struggling the most, or the individuals solely responsible for making America what it is today.”
Senior Grace Western had a similar reaction.
“I think he chose (or whoever did) something moderate to cater to the audience and not to ‘politicize’ Colgate and alienate certain alums, parents or students,” Western said. “I think he had valid and important points, but he failed to acknowledge and implicate the way we understand race, which heavily impacts what he was discussing about white people and the middle class.”
Biden’s argument, however, was predicated on his belief that creating pathways to the middle class can be a benefit to all Americans.
“I believe that a thriving and growing middle class has been the main reason for not only our economic stability, but also our political stability, and the social stability in our democracy,” he said. “When the middle class does well, the wealthy do very, very well, and the poor have a way up.”
Mixed opinions on the focus of Biden’s speech seemed to echo the debate over what it was that cost Clinton the election last November. Senior Kerinne O’Connor indicated that she sees this conversation as a benefit, rather than a point of contention.
“I think his speech opens up an important dialogue on campus, especially in regards to what he could have done better,” she said.
Prior to Biden’s scheduled lecture, select student leaders from SGA and other student groups, were invited to an intimate meet-and-greet and short lecture with the former vice president.
Swain said one of the most powerful moments in that meeting came from a question asking what the university should be doing better, and Biden’s response that more selective institutions like Colgate are less likely to report sexual assault cases.
“He looked directly at President Casey and said, ‘this is something that you need to be doing. And for the men in the room, you need to be helping with this as well. This is a really big deal,’” Swain said.
O’Connor noted that, while she will remember the entirety of Biden’s visit as a highlight of her Colgate experience, the part she enjoyed most was the Q&A session.
“[Through question and answer], we got a sense of what [Biden] holds important,” she said.
In his conversation with President Casey, Biden said that he and President Obama always intended to allow the new administration room to grow, as most outgoing administrations have traditionally done with their successors.
Earlier that day, President Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan canceled a vote to repeal large portions of the Affordable Care Act, which had been a major campaign promise for Trump.
“We’re trying to be graceful, like every other former President and Vice President,” Biden said. “We’re meant to give the new team an opportunity, give them a shot. Turns out, we were basically giving them enough rope.”
While Biden said he believes that the overwhelming decency of Republicans in Congress will allow them to stiffen their backbones to President Trump in future matters as he said they did on Friday, there are some achievements made in the past eight years, which the Trump administration will not be able to erase, no matter how hard they try.
“The public has moved beyond their government,” Biden said. “They’re in a different place. And civil rights, and civil liberties – he will try [to reverse progress], but it will not stand.”
When President Casey followed up this point, asking Biden to address a crowd of students with palpable fear that progress in civil rights and liberties will be reversed, Biden stood up to speak directly to the audience, injecting unrelenting fervor in his words for the last twenty minutes of the event.
“The reason why it’s not going to happen is because of you,” he said. “You can’t remain silent.”
Following thirty-six years in the Senate, and eight more in the vice presidency, Biden is still confident that there are stronger forces uniting Americans than there are factors that divide them.
What he said worries him, however, are attempts by White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and President Trump to delegitimize those forces, our political institutions and the Fourth Estate.
“What is it that pulls us together?” Biden asked. “We agreed on a set of rules, broad rules. The court has the last word. The president has limited power. The Congress need be responsive. And the press is the referee. Sometimes they’re not wearing a striped shirt, but on balance, they do.”
Biden ended the night with a call-to-action, addressing the students packed in Sanford Field House and hanging on to his every word.
“We’re counting on you,” Biden said. “And no excuses. I got there when I was twenty-nine.”