Joe Biden speaks at UB’s 32nd Distinguished Speaker Series

Former vice president inspires sold-out Alumni Arena crowd with speech and Q&A

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Joe Biden walked out to a standing ovation at Alumni Arena Thursday night, just hours after becoming a target in a list of nationwide political bomb threats.

The former vice president, who started the speech by shouting out UB’s successful football team, quickly shifted the tone and addressed the pressing news of the day. 

He used the moment to quote his mother in one of his many personal anecdotes of the night.

“Folks, we don’t have all the facts yet and we don’t know who’s behind this and why they’re doing it,” Biden said. “But as my mother used to say, ‘With something bad, Joey, something good will come if you look hard enough for it.’ My hope is this recent spat of these pipe bombs being mailed might wake everybody in my business up a little bit and [they will] realize that we have to begin to put this country back together again.” 

Following his discussion of the recent threats, Biden spoke with optimism about the press, restoring democracy and combating sexual assault for the 32nd annual Distinguished Speakers Series event. Biden touched on these topics by using decades worth of political experiences as anecdotes and creating an overall positive theme despite current political tensions. 

The speech brought out a sold-out crowd of 6,500 people and started roughly 20 minutes late. A faculty-administered question and answer session followed Biden’s speech and called up students to ask the former VP their submitted questions. 

University Police held a press conference Thursday morning and said the event had a heightened level of security compared to what attendees are used to for Distinguished Speaker Series events.

Chris Bartolomei, interim University Police chief said UPD had preparations in place before this week’s bomb threats, but “enhanced the plan” after the incidents. He did not reveal the plan’s specifics. The protocol involved screenings before entrance, detection dogs and UPD recommended attendees to not bring bags to speed up the process. 

“Obviously I’d say we’re at a heightened state of alert and again, we have made some modifications to the plan, but we do have a pretty robust plan to start with,” Bartolomei said at the press conference.

During his speech, Biden said he has never looked at an opponent as an enemy and that he hopes fellow politicians will work toward creating a tamer political environment.

“Americans is who we are. We’re Americans before we’re Democrats or Republicans or Independent,” Biden said over the audience’s booming applause. “The press is not the enemy of the people. Immigrants are not animals. My hope and prayer is that all of our leaders will work to lower the temperature of the political dialogue and I have faith that they will do that.” 

In order for a democracy to function, Biden said it requires “a certain kind of honorable citizen.” He spoke about the “moral fabric” that holds up a society and makes up a democracy. 

Biden’s volume throughout the speech was fairly quiet, but when the politician projected his voice, the importance of his points echoed. 

Biden raised his voice over the audience’s applause when he said America’s successes have come from equality, opportunity and freedom of expression. 

“As I’ve said many times before, America is an ideal – the single most unique nation in the world because of that,” Biden said. He said Americans have never walked away from inalienable rights, but we have to “remember who in God’s name we are.” 

Club members from UB’s Young Democratic Socialists of America protested Biden’s ideals. The protesters arrived before the event and stayed in front of the Alumni entrance for over an hour.

“There’s this perception of Joe Biden as your friendly uncle and that’s really not the case,” said Sean McDonough, YDSA treasurer and junior political science major. “He’s done a lot of awful things throughout his history and his career in the senate and as vice president and we just wanted to shine some light on those.”

The crowd inside of Alumni, however, was receptive to the former VP with several standing ovations. During his speech, Biden addressed the concerns of working class men and women who are worried about America’s future. 

He said many people are left feeling alienated and frightened because of how “rapid” things are changing with roughly 200,000 people losing their jobs within the past 20 months and the “alarming” increase in technology. There are greater reasons for optimism, though, according to Biden.  

America not only has the strongest military in the world, but it has the “most productive workers in the world,” the largest economy in the world, the most diversity and highest research universities in the world, Biden said, amping up his volume and the audience’s applause. 

“And we, the United States of America, is wondering whether we can compete? Give me a break,” he said. 

A 40-minute question and answer session, moderated by Suzanne Rosenblith, dean of UB’s Graduate School of Education, followed the speech. 

Rosenblith opened up the floor to pre-selected students and faculty who, along with the dean, asked Biden questions about student debt, an “open and honest” exchange of ideas on campus and presidential leadership attributes.

Throughout the session, Biden walked away from his designated seat on the stage’s couch, and paced back and forth to address those who asked questions. Biden’s answers were detailed and lengthy, feeling almost like a continuation of his speech, but his stage movements and shift in volume kept the audience engaged. 

Michael Fanning, a senior finance major who said he has voted Republican in the past, was one of the many students who identified with Biden’s message Thursday night.

“I kind of identify with the message about bringing people back together and returning [to] decency, or bringing decency back to the forefront,” Fanning said.

“The one comment I really liked from him was ‘it’s hard to really hate somebody if you don’t get to know them.’” 

Biden left the audience with a hopeful message at the conclusion of his speech.

“It’s time for us to choose hope over fear, unity over division, allies over adversaries, truth over lies, a brighter future for America over the desperate grip the darkest elements of our past have on our ankles. It’s time for us to lead again. We just have to get back on our feet. … We can make hope and history rhyme because we have it all – We just have to remember who the hell we are.” 

Hannah Stein and Brenton Blanchet are editors and can be reached at Hannah.Stein@ubspectrum.com and Brenton.Blanchet@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @HannahJStein and @BrentBlanchSpec.