Middle Class Joe and Empathy
In his speech at the Democratic Convention in July 2016, Vice President Joe Biden explained why he is called “Middle Class Joe” in Washington, DC. He said “It means you’re not sophisticated.”
Not sophisticated in the opinion of some perhaps, but not for me. “Middle Class Joe” is a bridge builder among classes and cultures. He is able to combine his personal experience and his genuine curiosity about people into an uncanny ability to feel empathy with a range of individuals — from the neighborhood postman to the international political leader.
How did I come to this conclusion?
Well, several years ago in Philadelphia, I met “Middle Class Joe” and experienced his empathy in action. I worked at the World Affairs Council in the city of brotherly love. We sponsored an international conference exploring Islam and had a guest list that could have competed with a White House state dinner. In fact, we hosted President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, political leaders from Europe, journalists from the middle east, and well-known foreign affairs experts, including Henry Kissinger.
I was assigned to escort then Senator Biden to the stage for his speech. “Chat with him,” I was advised, “and make sure you keep him on schedule.” That sounded easy enough. We had a memorable conversation (to me) and then all we had to do was traverse the hotel kitchen to get to the back of the stage. Piece of cake.
As we walked through the kitchen, Mr. Biden stopped to talk to the hotel workers — dishwashers, service people, cooks, repair people, janitors — everyone seemed to interest him. At first I tried to hurry him along to the stage. Then I decided to stop trying to control him and just observe him. He enjoyed greeting the people as much as they enjoyed shaking his hand. He spoke respectfully and with interest to each and every worker who had a question, comment, or concern.
I was mesmerized by this man, who could have ignored the “little” people, simply speeding through the kitchen to take his place among the famous and influential leaders and luminaries. Once he finished (nearly 10 minutes after he first stepped into the hotel kitchen), I complimented him on his kindness toward others and asked him why he had spent so much time with the kitchen staff and hotel workers. “These are the real people,” I remember him telling me. “These are the people who vote and I need to listen to their concerns.”
I never forgot that encounter with Mr. Biden.
Think about everything you learned as a child, no matter where you were raised. How can there be pleasure in saying, you’re fired? — Vice President Joe Biden
As our vice president, “Middle Class Joe” spoke at the Democratic Convention. With the same candor and cadence I remember from our walk through that kitchen so many years ago, he gave a speech that referenced Donald Trump and empathy, “His lack of empathy and compassion can be summed up in a phrase that I suspect he’s most proud of having made famous, you’re fired. I mean really, I’m not joking. Think about that. Think about that. Think about everything you learned as a child, no matter where you were raised. How can there be pleasure in saying, you’re fired?”
Given the respect he showed for the kitchen workers that day and his talent for listening, I believe Joe Biden truly empathizes with the struggles of everyday people.
The lack of empathy shown by Donald Trump, richly illustrated in his comments about the Gold Star Kahn family, is not only noticed by Democratic politicians. Robert Kagan, who worked for Ronald Reagan, also reflects on Trump’s lack of empathy. “It is not just that he is incapable of empathy. It is not just that he feels he must respond to every criticism he receives by attacking and denigrating the critic, no matter how small or inconsequential the criticism.”
Empathy is the foundation upon which we build respectful relationships with people. Listening to their concerns and trying to understand their beliefs is the first step toward solving any problem. We should look for leaders like Joe Biden who practice empathy on a daily basis.