"Don't be scared, honey. Don't be scared," Joe Biden said to 8-year-old Layla Salas at a town hall meeting in Milwaukee. "You're going to be fine, and we're going to make sure mommy's fine, too." Layla said later, "When Joe Biden spoke to me, I felt more safe. ... It felt very comforting for me."
In that moment, Biden illustrated perhaps the sharpest difference between himself and his predecessor. Donald Trump is more dynamic and energetic, a far better performer than Biden will ever be. Biden is more decent and caring, a far better person than Trump will ever be.
As a result, Biden is successfully assuming one of the most important roles a president ever plays — America's grief counselor, our consoler-in-chief. Since taking office, he's made the country feel more protected and more comforted, and, indeed, that's one of the main reasons he defeated Trump.
In exit polls, 53% of voters said Trump did not have the "temperament to serve as president," and 89% of those doubters voted for Biden. Today, Biden's average approval rating is about 53% — far from spectacular, but well ahead of Trump, who averaged a 41% rating during his presidency, according to Gallup.
There are many reasons for this disparity, but Biden's grasp of the consoler-in-chief role is one central explanation. Karen Hughes, a top adviser to President Bush 43, described that role for The Washington Post: "I think the presence of the president has become a visible symbol of the presence of the American people, of their love and their concern and their prayers."
Andy Card, Bush's chief of staff, told Politico: "It's always important for the president to demonstrate he is emotionally connected to America and its problems, and it is critically important for the president to discuss what is happening and show great concerns for victims and community."
To understand fully how poorly Trump performed the consoler-in-chief role, just try to imagine him talking to 8-year-old Layla Salas with anything like Biden's sensitivity. It's totally impossible. For that matter, one cannot imagine Trump delivering the speech Biden did to mark a year of suffering from COVID-19.
"While it was different for everyone, we all lost something — a collective suffering, a collective sacrifice, a year filled with the loss of life and the loss of living for all of us," Biden said. "But in the loss, we saw how much there was to gain in appreciation, respect and gratitude. Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do."
Trump couldn't console "all of us" because he thinks only about himself. He's a man totally lacking in empathy for others. And having that capacity for connection is entirely a personal — not a political or partisan — question.
A conservative Republican, Ronald Reagan set the standard for future presidents when he addressed the nation after the Challenger disaster in 1986: "We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them — this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God."
A liberal Democrat, Barack Obama matched Reagan's brilliance, breaking into the hymn "Amazing Grace" as he eulogized the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine worshippers gunned down at Charleston's Mother Emanuel Church in 2015.
Biden has many flaws as a communicator. In spontaneous settings, he can make embarrassing and damaging statements, which is why his advisers kept him quarantined in his Delaware basement during much of the campaign. Since he's taken office, the White House has carefully controlled his message, while avoiding a full-dress press conference where the president could stray off-script.
He's taken some heat for this reticence — and rightly so. As Olivier Knox, former head of the White House Correspondents' Association, wrote in the Post: "The traditional news conference is important in part because it's something a president can do in service of transparency and accountability even though it may not be obviously good for his political fortunes."
At his best, however, Biden has shown that he can connect and communicate on an emotional level. He has a compelling story to tell, a narrative of grief and pain that says, "I lost a wife and young daughter in a car crash, and then my adult son to cancer. I know what you're feeling because I've been there. I, too, have a hole in my heart." And that's why Layla Salas, and many other Americans, can say today, I feel "more safe."