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Can 'JoeBama' recapture old glory?

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a presidential candidates' forum at the 110th NAACP National Convention on July 24 in Detroit. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

There was a time when many millennials’ image of 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden was rooted in the goofy, ice cream-loving sidekick persona we had created of him on Twitter. To many of us, he was the right-hand man of President Barack Obama and one half of the #Joebama meme.

“Biden: Let’s record a mixtape and call it JoeBama,” reads a caption above a tweeted photo of Biden speaking to Obama at a fast-food restaurant. Another made-up dialogue above a Biden-Obama photo reads:

“Biden: I tinted all the mirrors orange

Obama: What?

Biden: He won’t be able to see himself

Obama: Joe . . .

Biden: He’ll think he’s a vampire”

In those years, millennials’ love for Biden was fueled in part by ridiculous memes such as these and in part by heartfelt Obama-Biden bromance moments, such as when Biden was overcome with emotion after Obama surprised him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“JoeBama is OTP,” a viewer commented on a CNN video of Biden receiving the medal (OTP meaning “one true pairing”). There’s even a mystery Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson-esque series about the duo featuring a fictional Biden based on the online caricature. The idea came to the author, Andrew Shaffer, when he saw Biden in aviator sunglasses. “I thought he looked like an action hero,” he told me.

But it’s been two-and-a-half years since Biden left the White House and that’s been enough time for a disconnect to grow between the lovable image many millennials had and the three-dimensional version of him, which is less goofy, more moderate, and seemingly far more outdated than many younger voters had originally suspected.

“I thought I would like him more,” I’ve heard many around me say. “If you see him on the debate stage,” Shaffer said, “he looks kind of old, doesn’t he? He’s not the guy with the laser pointer and stuff, but I don’t think he ever was, you know?” (One of the best-known #Joebama memes features Obama chastising Biden for playing with a laser pointer in a meeting.)

Perhaps Biden’s charms extend, for many, only as far as the memes. If Biden wants to clinch the Democratic nomination his best bet will be to gain strong support that extends beyond older voters who, according to the recent polling, already seem on board with Biden. A WSJ/NBC poll found, however, that among 18- to 38-year-olds, a mere 9 percent would choose Biden as their candidate (Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have significantly more support within that age group with 29 and 24 percent, respectively).

Biden’s nearly 50-year career in politics means that he has to explain a long list of public policy decisions that may have been progressive at the time, but now seem backward or shortsighted. The 1994 crime bill, which Biden helped write and many blame for the country’s mass incarceration rates, is an example. Another is his past position on busing. The policies that deported more than three million immigrants here illegally during the Obama administration also have been put under the microscope in recent weeks. And it’s hard to ignore the more than a half-dozen women who have come forward with stories of how the presidential hopeful behaved in ways that made them feel uncomfortable or uneasy.

Biden’s best bet to win over millennials, whose turnout rate in the 2018 elections nearly doubled from the previous midterms, is to at least appear more relatable. An easy start would be to lean into the lovable online caricature many millennials have created of him. But it’s unlikely that’ll happen. It’s doubtful he’ll be able to change anytime soon even if it means winning the position he’s been eyeing since 1988.

 Yeji Jesse Lee is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and is an intern with Newsday Opinion.