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Joe Biden jokes about touching in first appearance since women's complaints

Former Vice President Joe Biden leaves an event for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington on Friday, April 5. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.

Joe Biden twice joked about asking for permission to hug people during his first appearance since the emergence of complaints from women about how he touched them, avoiding serious discussion of an issue that's threatened his expected presidential campaign.

In a speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on Friday, April 5, in Washington, the former vice president made only a glancing reference to disclosures by several women who've expressed their discomfort with Biden's style of physical contact with people he meets.

He embraced IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson as he took the stage, and joked, "I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie.'' In a more awkward moment, he invited some children in the audience up to the stage, and after putting his arm around a young boy, he said the child "gave me permission to touch him."

Speaking to reporters afterward, Biden said the jokes were not an attempt to make light of the experiences of the women who've accused him of acting inappropriately.

It was "never my intention'' to make anyone uncomfortable, Biden said, adding that he "wouldn't be surprised'' if other women were to make similar complaints.

Asked whether he would apologize to the women, Biden said he is "sorry I didn't understand that'' they were not comfortable with his hugs and other contact. "I'm not sorry for any of my intentions,'' he said.

Still, he said he realized that his actions no longer fit with the times and that "It's going to have to change somewhat how I can campaign.''

Biden is expected to announce his third bid for the presidency sometime this month. He made no mention of a campaign in his speech, but he later gave a strong hint that a campaign was imminent.

"I am very close to making the decision to stand before you all very soon," Biden said.

Biden is positioning himself as the Democrat with the best chance to win back many of the middle-class voters who flocked to Donald Trump in 2016. The bulk of his speech was a tribute to hourly workers and a lament that corporations no longer feel responsibility to employees.

"This country was not built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs and hedge fund managers,'' Biden said. "It was built by the American middle class.''

He added that "some politicians are afraid to use the word unions. Not me. Unions built this middle class.''

Biden, 76, has led in early polls of primary voters and could capture significant support from major Democratic donors, many of whom have held off from backing other candidates while awaiting his decision. Questions about whether his touch-intensive political style is wrong for the #MeToo era do not appear to be derailing his plans to enter the race in the coming weeks.

The accusations emerged in the past week after former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores wrote in a New York magazine column about her uncomfortable interaction with the former vice president. None of the women have said that they felt Biden's actions were a form of sexual assault or harassment.

Biden and his spokesman initially responded with written statements before releasing a two-minute web video on Wednesday in which he promised change but did not apologize to anyone who he'd made feel uncomfortable.

"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, I understand," he said in the video. "I will be more mindful and respectful of people's personal space. And that's a good thing."

Other Democrats, including those already running for president, haven't called on Biden to reconsider his expected entry into the presidential race, but several have said his statements that he never intended anything untoward aren't enough.

Trump has taken jabs at Biden despite the president's own history of accusations of sexual misconduct. He retweeted a doctored version of the video Biden released on Wednesday to address the complaints. In the altered version, while Biden is speaking, a cartoonlike version of the former vice president appears behind him to caress his shoulder and nuzzle the back of his head.

The tweet had the text, "WELCOME BACK JOE!''

It indicates that Trump's history won't restrain him from hammering Biden on the issue should he emerge as the Democratic nominee.

Speaking to reporters as he left the White House on Friday for an event on the border with Mexico, Trump said he doesn't view Biden as a political threat.

"He's only a threat to himself," Trump said. "His record's not good, he'd have to run on the Obama failed record."

But in a sign that Trump may be taking Biden seriously, the president wrote a taunting tweet just after the speech to the union, ended: "I've employed thousands of Electrical Workers. They will be voting for me!''

This article was written by Jennifer Epstein, a reporter for Bloomberg.

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