Last weekend, 24-year-old Michaelyn Mankel felt excited and prepared. A field organizer for Sunrise Movement in Des Moines, she was attending the Polk County Steak Fry, the single largest gathering of Democrats in the state of Iowa, and she had her questions ready for Joe Biden when she met him.
“I’m part of the Sunrise Movement and we’re fighting for a Green New Deal,” Mankel says in a video that captured the moment, which went viral on Twitter yesterday. She’s face-to-face with Biden, who is already grabbing both of her hands. He responds, “Well, you get a better deal from me than anybody,” and suddenly releases and grabs them again. He talks over her while Mankel continues her very specific line of questioning. “I’m just wondering how can we trust you when you’ve continually broken your pledge not to take fossil-fuel money and held fundraisers with a CEO,” she challenges. “I have not, that is not true,” Biden replies — still holding her hands. (A few weeks ago, Biden attended an event co-hosted by Andrew Goldman, a former adviser and co-founder of a fossil-fuel company called Western LNG.)
Mankel keeps going. “How about your climate adviser Heather Zichal — she’s actually made a million dollars from the fossil-fuel industry?” she asks. “We need a Green New Deal, not more corruption.” Then the former vice-president takes her left hand in both of his, pats it like he’s just given her a nickel to go buy something nice for herself, and says, “Thank you for being — for admiring me so much.” He turns away from her and smirks. A guy watching in the background chuckles.
“That look at the end of the video is me realizing I blew it,” Mankel told the Cut. Biden’s holding her hands had thrown her off, she said. “I’m not sure how clear it is, but my hands are limp, and I pulled them away at first,” she continued. “I was prepared for him to challenge me or turn away from me; I wasn’t ready for him to take my hands in his and speak to me as if I couldn’t understand.”
For months, Biden has faced criticism over the way he physically interacts with women — be it through invading their personal space in a way that feels uncomfortable and demeaning or under a veneer of grandfatherly affection.
But Biden has another tactic he uses on women, often younger ones, who confront him: sarcasm at their expense. When he sneeringly tells Mankel, “Thanks so much for admiring me,” he’s winking at supporters, who can laugh at the harping Biden has to deal with from people like Mankel when all the guy is trying to do is eat a fried steak. He expressed the very same sentiment to another woman elsewhere in Iowa: writer Lyz Lenz, who confronted Biden about his record on LGBTQ issues while moderating a panel over the weekend. “You’re a lovely person,” Biden said sarcastically to Lenz onstage after she pressed him on the fact that he had originally voted for both Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act before later voting to repeal them. As he passed her on the way out, she says he told her “dryly,” “You’re a real sweetheart.”
For Biden, who has yet to really pin down his own convictions as a candidate beyond his service as VP to Barack Obama, politics is theater. And his sarcasm reveals who is audience is. When he joked, “Go easy on me, kid,” to Kamala Harris onstage during the Democratic debates in July, he was barely talking to her. He was talking about her, around her, referencing his own seniority while appealing to those who might agree with a characterization of Harris’s criticism on his record on race as unreasonable or inappropriate. By turning the joke around on Harris — and on Mankel and on Lenz — he avoids engaging with the substance of his female critics’ arguments and casts himself as a more rational, even-keeled foil. (Consider the way Biden alternatively handles confrontation with male opponents, some of whom have come at him with real aggression: When Julian Castro needled him for seeming to “forget” his own health-care plan at another debate, Biden pushed back, jostling with Castro for the last word.)
The intent of smiling, joking, and walking away from a female critic is to neutralize her very right to make the critique. For Mankel, a young woman genuinely trying to find out how Biden feels about issues that matter to her, it almost worked. His dismissive reply meant she was left feeling like she was at fault for failing to engage the candidate. Now she feels that “the VP simply didn’t see me as a community member worth listening to.” “I had real questions,” she said. “An we want real answers, damn it.”