This May, Cornell University will host former Vice President Joe Biden as our convocation speaker. Not surprisingly, the announcement has been well-received. Although it is a time-honored tradition for politicians to speak at graduation, Biden is an unusually prominent and popular speaker. Of course, Biden has attained considerable popularity due to his relaxed “Uncle Joe” persona and his down-to-earth personality. More importantly, however, Biden is an vital example of leadership in a moment that desperately calls for leaders.
Recall that, memes aside, Biden has been an enormously influential figure in our political system over the past eight years. I can’t simply summarize an entire administration in one column. Here’s one big point, however: in 2009, President Obama and Vice President Biden were inaugurated amidst the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Yet, through an economic stimulus spearheaded by Biden, the worst consequences were avoided.
Indeed, the quick development of a partnership between Obama and Biden proved crucial as the administration sought to pass a groundbreaking health-care reform bill and navigate international crises. It’s often said that Biden was one of the most prominent advisors within the Obama administration, particularly as a contrarian voice.
I want to to note that there is no inherent virtue to running your mouth; our current president should make this evident. And Biden has certainly had his fair share of gaffes. Nonetheless, Biden can be defined by his honesty on issues where candor is needed. It can be easy to forget, for example, that there was a time less than five years ago when the Democratic Party had no consistent position on marriage equality. Biden announced his personal support, forcing President Obama quickly follow suit. By the end of the year, the party had found a consensus. Biden’s simple words made a difference. It means something to speak out, even if others are hesitant.
This principle is equally apparent through Biden’s dedication to combating the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. With the “It’s On Us” campaign, Biden brought a clear message to students across the country: the responsibility can’t be passed along to someone else. Accordingly, there will be moments where it is uncomfortable to speak out. It’ll make you unpopular. But it’s still your moral obligation to do so. The prevention of sexual assault is an unusually visceral example. Nonetheless, the duty to speak out holds in every aspect of our lives.
That’s one of the reasons that it’s so important for us to hear from Joe. He gets the importance of duty. He lives it. And, it must be said, he has endured through devastating experiences. Shortly after winning his first term in the United States Senate, he lost his wife and daughter in a car accident that also severely injured his two sons. In 2015, Biden was confronted with the loss of his son, Beau, to cancer.
Few of us have dealt with such tragedy; Biden has candidly admitted to being overwhelmed in the aftermath. I have no doubt that not a single day goes by where Biden does not think of Beau. Still, in spite of everything, he has never quit. He’s kept going. He has dedicated himself to fixing problem by leading national effort to cure cancer. Instead of retreating into bitterness or hopelessness, Biden has been shaped into a man of perseverance and empathy.
Some still speculate about an alternative trajectory for Biden. In another world, perhaps, Biden may have made an attempt to be President Obama’s successor in the White House. We do not know, and cannot know how that would have turned out. But as a politician, Biden is gifted. He delivers simple, effective messages about protecting the middle-class and working class. The role of Biden’s government is not to be big or small, but to make it so that every mom and dad can tell their kids that it’s gonna be ok, and mean it.
Going forward, the Democratic Party could learn a lot from Biden. It must remain keenly aware of the daily struggle of millions of Americans. The path back to a majority will run through many of the same communities that turned away from Democrats in 2016. As the Democrats adjust their messaging, they should also remember the other key pillar of Bidenism: relentless optimism about America. Even when times are rough, Biden has always stressed his belief that America will come out on top. It’s a uplifting narrative that will help focus the purpose of the Democratic Party, even when things look dark over the next four years.
But ultimately, the lesson we should take from Joe shouldn’t be just about a party. It’s a lesson about the values that should motivate us every day. If you’re one of the big guys, stick up for the little guys. If you’re knocked down, you get back up. If you see something wrong, you damn well better say something about it. That’s what Joe Biden stands for. That’s the authentic, good-humored, courageous public servant we will soon welcome to Ithaca to send off our graduating class. And I can’t wait. Have you heard of the Dairy Bar, Mr. Vice President?
Kevin Kowalewski is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Democratic Dialogue appears every other Thursday this semester.