(Joe Biden hugs an attendee of a campaign event in Ames, Iowa, on January 21, 2020, two weeks before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. By Al Drago/Getty Images)
It’s very strange to think of Joe Biden as a world-historical figure. For decades, he seemed to me to be a bit of an irritating blowhard who rarely took the chance to edit himself. He was a classic slap-on-the-back backroom pol, with an everyman-on-the-train vibe, who loved the ornaments of public office, and that was basically it.
Washington will always need people like Biden, and he played the part well, but he was hardly a star. He rarely inspired, he made cringe-inducing gaffe after gaffe, his vanity required him to cover up his baldness with what, for a while, looked like a painful rice-paddy of plugs, he plagiarized a speech so obviously and crudely he almost begged to be caught, and despite his rep for retail politics, was terrible at campaigning for president. In 2008, he quit after Iowa, with one percent of the vote.
His big moment came when Barack Obama picked him as his veep. And the choice of Biden was specifically designed, it seems to me, to ruffle no more feathers, and to assuage white working class discomfort with a young, inexperienced black guy with a funny, foreign-sounding name. Even at the time, it felt to me that Biden’s acceptance speech was fine but not exactly great — but what worked nonetheless was his persona: “It's hard not to feel affection for this scrappy old guy — especially if you're a Catholic,” I wrote. “This was a very culturally Catholic speech, especially at the beginning, and Biden will speak to people who might be leery of this young African-American. It was also focused on middle class economic anxiety and spoke about it in intimate ways that voters will immediately understand.”
Twelve years later, this guy is even older and less scrappy but still has the same core appeal: that old Irish dude who can go on a bit but has a heart of gold and hasn’t completely disappeared into the left-liberal elite. The drastically curtailed Covid campaign was a godsend in retrospect because it removed countless opportunities for him to get in his own way, while very successfully projecting and burnishing this image. Yes he could get a bit Abraham-Simpson-y at times, but I confess I began to find that a little comforting after a while, in the era of Trump. The combination of decency, vulnerability and humanness became even more potent up against an indecent, inhuman con-man. It became the stutterer versus the monster.
And Biden’s core appeal, as he has occasionally insisted, is that he ran against the Democratic left, and won because of moderate and older black voters with their heads screwed on right. He was the least online candidate. For race-leftists like Jamelle Bouie, he was part of the problem: “For decades Biden gave liberal cover to white backlash.” For gender-warriors like Rebecca Traister, he was “a comforter of patriarchal impulses toward controlling women’s bodies.” Ben Smith a year and a half ago went for it: “His campaign is stumbling toward launch with all the hallmarks of a Jeb!-level catastrophe — a path that leads straight down … Joe Biden isn’t going to emerge from the 2020 campaign as the nominee. You already knew that.” The sheer smug of it! And the joy of seeing old Joe get the last laugh.
It’s worth recalling the obloquy the woke dumped on Biden in the early stages of the race because this will surely be a battle line if he wins the presidency, and we will have to fight for him and against them if we are not going to sink into deeper tribal warfare. He is one of the last vestiges of the near-extinct rapport between white working class voters and the Democrats, and if he wins next week, it will be because he has wrested older white voters from the Republican grip, and won white women in a landslide (unlike Clinton), even as his support among blacks and Latinos may come in slightly behind Hillary’s.
Biden ran a campaign, in stark contrast to Clinton’s, focused not on rallying the base around identity grievances, but on persuading the other side with argument and engagement. If you believe in liberal democracy — in persuasion, dialogue, and civility — and want to resist tribalism, Biden may be our unexpected but real last chance. And in this campaign, he has walked the walk.
His core message, which has been remarkably consistent, is not a divisive or partisan one. It is neither angry nor bitter. Despite mockery and scorn from some understandably embittered partisans, he has a hand still held out if Republicans want to cooperate. In this speech at Warm Springs, where Biden invoked the legacy of FDR, you can feel the Obama vibe, so alien to the woke: “Red states, blue states, Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, and Liberals. I believe from the bottom of my heart, we can do it. People ask me, why are you so confident Joe? Because we are the United States of America.”
And while he has promised a deep re-structuring and redistribution in the wake of Covid, climate change, and destabilizing inequality, he has done so in pragmatic, rather than ideological, terms. Against the surreal extremism and divisiveness of Trump, he has offered moderation and an appeal to unity. Look at the careful balance he has struck on the protests against police misconduct this summer: “Some of it is just senseless burning and looting and violence that can’t be tolerated and won’t, but much of it is a cry for justice from a community that’s long had a knee of injustice on their neck.” We need both these impulses, if we are to extract real reform from distorting rage, and make it stick.
He is not perfect, of course. I suspect he is naive on some questions. He realizes, does he not, that when he uses the term “equity” rather than “equality”, with respect to race, he is using code for the crudest racial discrimination. He surely knows that critical race theory is not about being sensitive to the pain of others, but about seeing the U.S. as no less a white supremacy now than under slavery, and liberal constitutionalism as a mere mask for oppression of non-whites. He knows that the Equality Act eviscerates the religious freedom he has previously championed, does he not, and folds the category of sex into one of gender, jeopardizing at the margins both gay and women’s rights? And it should be troubling, it seems to me, that, when confronted with the fact that his son, Hunter, is corrupt in the classic, legal, and swampy way, Biden refuses to see anything wrong with it at all.
But these are quibbles in the grand scheme of things. And it is striking, as David Brooks noted this morning, how deftly Biden has walked through a field of culture war landmines and not see one go off. That has taken discipline — and Biden has shown that he can exercise it. Maybe he learned it from Obama.
His closing message has been about healing — from the wounds of Covid, economic crisis, and resilient racism. And if there is one thing Biden really knows in his heart and soul it is healing. Recovering from the loss of a wife, a daughter and a son requires a profound sense of how to take the hits that life can bring, how to stay strong while accepting vulnerability, and how to move slowly forward.
This is how he put it last week, as he related to the isolating, desolating casualties of Covid19: “Alone in a hospital room, alone in a nursing home, no family, no friends, no loved ones beside them in those final moments, and it haunts so many of the surviving families, families who were never given a chance to say goodbye. I, and many of you know, what loss feels like when you lose someone you love, you feel that deep black hole opening up on your chest and you feel like you’re being swallowed into it.”
I have felt that way for four years now. What I grieve is an idea of America that is decent, generous, big-hearted, and pragmatic, where the identity of a citizen, unqualified, unhyphenated, is the only identity you need. I miss a public discourse where a president takes responsibility even for things beyond his full control, where the fault-lines of history are not mined for ammunition but for greater understanding, where, in Biden’s words, we can once again see the dignity in each other. I am not a fool, and know how hard this will be. But in this old man, with his muscle memory of what we have lost, and his ability to move and change in new ways, we have an unexpected gift.
“I’ve long said the story of America is a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Joe Biden said last week. Well, ordinary old Joe, it’s your turn now. Do the extraordinary.
Gig Harbor, Washington, 12 pm
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