WASHINGTON - Democrat Joe Biden, who signaled Friday he was on the cusp of announcing a presidential bid, brushed off allegations of inappropriate conduct with women by joking about hugging in his first public appearance since the accusations broke.
The former vice president said he was “very close” to revealing his 2020 plans, and that he and his team were busy “putting everything together.”
But the will-he-or-won’t-he campaign game by the 76-year-old, who is his party’s frontrunner in opinion polls despite not officially joining the race, has been clouded by allegations about his behavior with women.
Over the past week, Biden has been accused of inappropriately touching women or making them feel uncomfortable with his affection.
That was “never my intention,” he said at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference in Washington, as he sought, unsuccessfully, to defuse the turmoil.
He added that while he “wouldn’t be surprised” if more women came forward with similar claims, “I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people contact me — who I don’t know — and say the exact opposite.”
But while he sought to move past the controversy, the veteran politician made an awkward joke about the situation.
After embracing union chief Lonnie Stephenson, Biden turned to the crowd and said “I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie.”
The overwhelmingly male audience laughed.
Further into his speech, he brought young children onstage and repeated a similar joke, before adding: “Everyone knows I like kids more than people.”
Biden has said that in his constant effort to make “a human connection,” he shakes hands, hugs voters, and sometimes grasps their shoulders in moments of compassion or good will.
That behavior has sparked criticism from his own party and its increasingly diverse base, with some saying he is out of step with changing social norms.
Biden addressed the concerns, saying he would likely adjust how he campaigns should he enter the race.
But he stopped short of an outright apology to those who have found fault with his actions.
“I’m sorry I didn’t understand more,” Biden told reporters.
“I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I’ve ever done. I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally, to a man or a woman.”
After the remarks, two women who had recounted their uncomfortable encounters with Biden made clear they remained troubled.
“To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have,” tweeted Lucy Flores of Nevada.
The former state legislator has accused Biden of smelling her hair and then kissing her head at a 2014 rally when she ran for lieutenant governor.
Amy Lappos of Connecticut, who recounted this week that Biden rubbed noses with her, told The Washington Post that the candidate-in-waiting’s joke “is a clear indication Biden doesn’t get it and doesn’t take the voice of the women who have come forward seriously.”
The fact Biden joked about consent from a child “adds a new level of creepy and gross,” she added.
Biden released a video Wednesday in which he pledged to “be more mindful” about people’s personal space going forward.
President Donald Trump, who himself has faced accusations of sexual misconduct, was quick to mock Biden on Twitter, dismissing him as a potential challenger in 2020.
“I don’t see Joe Biden as a threat,” Trump told reporters Friday. “I think he’s only a threat to himself.”
Trump later posted what appeared to be a goading tweet just as the Democrat concluded his speech.
“I’ve employed thousands of Electrical Workers. They will be voting for me!” Trump tweeted.
In his address, Biden stressed his traditional themes of solidarity, union strength and his family’s blue-collar roots.
“This country was not built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs and hedge fund managers,” Biden said.
“It was built by the great American middle class,” and the group that forged the country’s middle class was “unions,” he added.
Biden’s tactile politics are not the only concern raised by his decades of experience in public life.
He faces renewed focus on how, as chairman of a Senate committee, he handled the 1991 hearings featuring Anita Hill, a former aide to then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, whom she accused of sexual harassment.
Biden is also under scrutiny for supporting 1990s tough-on-crime legislation that helped create a mass incarceration crisis that disproportionately affected black Americans.