Biden Talks World Affairs, Tells Students to Engage and 'Jump in'

To a packed room of students in Irvine Auditorium on Thursday, March 30, Penn President Amy Gutmann welcomed former Vice President Joe Biden: “If there ever were a person who needed no introduction, he is the one.”

Cheers erupted as Biden took the stage. It was an exciting moment for many to see—and pick the brain of—one of the newest members of Penn’s community, and “one of our nation’s foremost statesmen,” as Gutmann said.

For one Wharton student, Matt Passman, he considered it a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

“It’s so interesting to hear what [Biden] has to say, especially now that he’s one step away from public life,” Passman said, “and with it being such an interesting time politically in the U.S.”

Biden, recently named the University’s inaugural Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor and the leader of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, joined Gutmann for a conversation on the United States’ role in global affairs. Gutmann set the discussion’s tone, asking about the nation’s relationship with both China and Russia, and took a handful of questions from the audience.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the  inaugural Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor and leader of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the inaugural Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor and leader of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement

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Throughout the hour-and-a-half dialogue, no matter the topic, Biden gave particular insight aimed at students, most of whom are part of a generation he claimed he’s never been more optimistic about.

“You are the most incredible generation,” he said. “You are the most generous generation in American history, and the best educated generation of American history. You volunteer more, you’re more open-minded.”

Biden used specific examples from his 40 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president to describe his outlook on the current state of affairs, as well as his vision for the country and the world’s future.

With regard to the U.S.-China relationship, Biden, who’s spent more time with Chinese President Xi Jinping than any other world leader, noted that “it’s the single most consequential relationship for us to develop for your generation.

“It has to be a relationship built on responsible competition and there has to be responsible stakeholders,” he said, adding that if they aren’t responsible, “We have to call it out.”

The United States of America has to lead the world. The reason why we lead the world … is not because of the example of our power, but the power of our example.

former Vice President Joe Biden, the inaugural Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor and leader of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement

When it comes to Russia, Biden, who’s known every Russian leader since 1972, says Vladimir Putin could potentially succeed in fracturing Europe and democratic institutions if America isn’t smart.

“The United States of America has to lead the world,” he said. “The reason why we lead the world, and it’s not merely because we have the most powerful military in the world … the reason is not because of the example of our power, but the power of our example. Our value set. That’s what has been able to pursue the world to move in the direction that we want it to move.”

Building off a question from a student, Biden said Central America receives far too little public attention “for a whole range of reasons.”

He discussed a billion-dollar program he helped create with Latin American presidents to better their countries' economies, and explained, “There’s not a reason why in the 21st century the Western Hemisphere shouldn’t be the epicenter of economic growth in the world. It has everything. For the first time in human history you can see an entire hemisphere that is democratic, middle class, and at peace. It’s within our power to have that happen.”

Joe Biden on stage at Irvine
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Biden also talked job creation, how to be a bipartisan leader, the “sacred obligation” to help military veterans, and why it’s important to stay positive in a time that’s considered by some as bleak.

“I am confident and optimistic because I am a student of American history,” he said.

In 1968, Biden, then the same age as many of those he was addressing, witnessed assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, among several other tragic events that rocked the nation.

After that, he said, “A whole lot of us jumped in. We changed the world at the time.

“Don’t tell me the American people can’t handle this. And what my generation faced was not nearly what my father’s generation faced. … This is not a time to be down, this is a time to jump in.”

  • Text by Lauren Hertzler
  • Photos by Denise Henhoeffer & Eddy Marenco