Written by Sydney Ember and Jonathan Martin (Maggie Astor contributed reporting.)
For five days, Joe Biden remained in the background as four women came forward saying they had been uncomfortable with the ways he had touched them. He put out three statements through a spokesman, but none of them was his own account or an acknowledgment of the discomfort he had caused.
On Wednesday, Biden decided he needed to address the matter — and his future as a possible presidential candidate — personally. Yet his approach was unusual: He released a seemingly homemade video, laying out his views on connecting with voters emotionally and even physically, and vowing to “be more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.”
“In my career, I’ve always tried to make a human connection — that’s my responsibility, I think,” said Biden, sitting on a sofa, his legs crossed. “I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, ‘You can do this.’”
But he added: “Social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying.”
The two-minute video amounted to a tacit admission by Biden, 76, and his aides that they needed to take more action than they had since Friday, when a former Nevada assemblywoman, Lucy Flores, published an essay in which she described Biden touching her inappropriately and kissing her on the head in 2014. On Tuesday, two more women told The New York Times that the former vice president’s touches made them uncomfortable.
And his new explanation immediately became part of a lengthening queue of remarks that have prolonged the speculation about whether he will run for president. Though he has not yet announced he would seek the 2020 Democratic nomination, Biden is widely expected to join the race soon. He began his video in a manner that suggested his entry is just a matter of time: “Folks,” he said, “in the coming month I expect to be talking to you about a whole lot of issues, and I’ll always be direct with you.”
Biden’s aides said Wednesday that he wanted to address the accusations about his physical contact directly after listening to the women who have criticized him, as well as many other female friends, family members and advisers. They said he was particularly affected by the comments of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime friend of his who is similarly rooted in an earlier political era, when she said Tuesday that “people’s space is important to them, and what’s important is how they receive it and not necessarily how you intended it.”
Biden’s campaign-in-waiting has not ruled out the possibility of a televised interview, but advisers indicated that he was more likely to address reporters when he delivers a speech to a union conference Friday in Washington. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Wearing a blue suit jacket over a white shirt with no tie, Biden stared directly into the camera as he issued his statement, which lacked a direct apology to the women who have come forward. The hastily made video, which appeared to be filmed on a phone, was recorded at Biden’s Northern Virginia home.
Biden tried to frame the issue around changing social norms. But some women say it is fundamentally about the invasion of personal space, and the change is that they now feel empowered to speak out. In Washington, Biden has been known throughout his political career for his tactile style of politics, with shoulder rubs, hugs and kisses that some women now say were troubling to them at the time.
Biden also stressed the role that personal connection had played in his political career.
“Over the years, knowing what I’ve been through, the things that I’ve faced, I found that scores, if not hundreds, of people have come up to me and reached out for solace and comfort — something, anything that may help them get through the tragedy they’re going through,” he said. “It’s just who I am. I’ve never thought of politics as cold and antiseptic.”
Reaction to the complaints about Biden’s behavior has been divided, and that carried over to his video address Wednesday.
Writer Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, cited the lack of an apology as a problem. “Imagine all the time he could have saved,” she wrote, “by typing ‘I’m sorry. I will do better.’”
Alicia Garza, a prominent progressive activist, said on Twitter that she was “disappointed” with Biden’s statement and called it “mealy-mouthed at best.”
“Try this,” she added, “I’m so sorry that my actions had this impact on you. I will do the work to be better and do better.”
Others, across a range of the political spectrum, praised the video.
Several female Democratic lawmakers said they were happy to see him addressing the matter more fully.
“I think he needs to listen, and he’s committed to doing that,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois said, “One thing I know about Joe Biden: He’s a man of his word. If he says he’ll do better then he’ll do better.” She added, “And I do believe that if the women felt that he was inappropriate we have to respect how they felt about it.”
Amy McGrath, the Democratic former Marine fighter pilot who narrowly lost a House race in Kentucky last year, said in a tweet that Biden was “honest, humble, and cares deeply about our country.”
Jennifer Palmieri, a former senior aide to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, wrote in a tweet: “In his own words and clearly heartfelt. Best thing he could do to help himself in this moment.”
By having Biden issue a video statement, his aides were able to get his message out directly and in more personal terms, without him sitting for a televised interview, where there would be a risk of misspeaking.
The former vice president is virtually certain to speak more about his behavior with women before he announces his candidacy because his staff does not want the first days of his campaign to be consumed with questions about the matter. It is unclear, however, whether he can defuse the issue if more women come forward to express their unease about previous encounters with him.
“I’ll always believe governing — quite frankly life for that matter — is about connecting with people. That won’t change,” he said in the video. “But I will be more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.
“The idea that I can’t adjust to the fact that personal space is important — more important than it’s ever been — is just not thinkable.
“I will,” he said, his voice softening. “I will.”