Many Floridians are wondering who the real Joe Biden beyond the public persona that we know well from his decades in public service. As a senior advisor to Vice President Biden in the White House from 2015-2017, I can answer that.
I was the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, a position created under President Obama’s administration —and eliminated by President Trump’s. The fact that the post was created at Biden’s insistence is a testament to his commitment to addressing a less-visible pandemic that this nation has been dealing with for a long time, and that has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I went to work in the White House somewhat skeptical of the federal government’s ability to make positive changes in the lives of everyday Americans. A native Miamian, I had lived and taught in Haiti, chronicled the history of South Florida’s Cuban-Jewish community and sued governments for violating women’s human rights. I believed in the power of people, not politicians, to improve the state of the world. But I came to realize that elected leaders such as Biden, who truly listen to community voices and empathize with real people, can leverage federal muscle to make life better for the average American.
Briefing the vice president aboard Air Force Two, on our way to meet Lady Gaga for an It’s on Us event, I was struck by how viscerally Biden responded to the shocking statistic that one in five women will experience sexual violence while in college. I was impressed with how quickly he digested complex data points and effectively incorporated them into his remarks to the students, calling on men and women to change the culture around sexual assault. He was really listening, he really cared and he was astute at integrating data into his overall vision of what gender violence is and how to combat it at the national level.
Biden often stayed — sometimes for hours, and with boundless energy — to meet survivors who came to hear him speak and who wanted to thank him. At an event on the White House lawn, a group of junior White House staffers approached him, identified themselves as survivors of sexual violence and thanked him for standing up for them. With a long line of far more senior people waiting to speak with him, Biden took time to speak at length with this brave group of young women, who also worked along with Biden at the highest levels of government.
Violence against women has been the signature issue of Biden’s career. He wrote and championed the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which has committed billions of federal dollars to improving our federal response to intimate-partner violence and sexual assault. Over the next two decades, serious victimization by an intimate partner declined by 78 percent.
Some people wonder whether Biden is old school. He is, in his unfailing commitment to his family and to the families of his staff, which was evident in his everyday interactions. A workplace policy directive from the vice president instructed us never to miss family events — our anniversaries, our kid’s birthdays, soccer games or dance recitals. Not even for work at the White House. Nothing is as important to him as family.
But he isn’t stuck in the old school. He is always open to new perspectives. I remember him listening intently to Black, immigrant, Native American and LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic violence pointing out how established systems — systems that Biden himself had championed in the past — had failed them. Could we repair those broken systems, he asked the survivors, or did we need to start afresh? He listened, and then tasked me with continuing these difficult conversations and developing solutions alongside those most affected by violence. Biden will take this same approach toward healing our country’s deep divisions.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Ending violence against women is a goal that everyone, regardless of politics, should be able to embrace. In our diverse Florida communities, we have every stripe of difference and every stripe of politics. The country needs so much healing now. Let’s not forget that other pandemic that has been smoldering under the radar for far too long. And let’s make the right choice on Nov. 3.
Caroline Bettinger-Lopez is a professor of law and director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law. She served as the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women and a Senior Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2015-2017.