When Joe Biden was in his early 20s, his new girlfriend’s mother asked him what kind of job he wanted. “President,” he replied, “of the United States.” A college senior at the time, Biden must have appeared brash and full of himself: Who would announce such a goal to someone he presumably wanted to take him seriously? But perhaps he knew something no one else did. Though it took a while longer than he might have hoped—and involved two earlier presidential bids, each embarrassing in its own way—Biden has made it happen at last.
Of his previous attempts, the 1988 run was likely the more disastrous. It began with Biden promising generational change as he declared his candidacy at the Amtrak station in Wilmington, Del., and it ended with his withdrawal from the race amid allegations of plagiarism. The campaign also had the dubious honor of being featured in Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, an exhaustive portrait of the leading contenders for the nomination that year that painted none in a flattering light, but Biden least of all. A proud but insecure man, he was depicted as a legislator always pushing on to the next plan before accomplishing the previous one. He was a magnet for those who saw him as a rising star in the Democratic Party, but he kept his aides up to all hours of the night in meandering conversations. He loved to give speeches and work the crowd, yet his most inspiring lines were often stock phrases aimed only at winning the race. He wanted victory but was never entirely clear about what he would do with it once in office.
But missing from this skeptical portrait was a sense of the politics that motivated Biden to enter the scrum in the first place. Even though his ambition was evident, its source was less so: He had always wanted to be president, but why? What political goals drove him, what dreams kept him running? Even Biden himself, at least in Cramer’s account, wasn’t always sure. In the buildup to his announcement in 1987, the self-proclaimed “son of Delaware” was plagued by self-doubt: “He could not find that overriding reason why he should be President, why he was going to be President, what he was going to be President for.”
Journalist Evan Osnos’s new book, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now—one of the latest installments in the literature on Biden’s life—doesn’t really answer this question either. But it does distill the political confusion, both the possibilities and the limits, around Biden’s presidency. For Democrats and liberals, the most pressing demand in the 2020 election was to defeat Donald Trump, but they often seemed less concerned about who would be elected in his place. The result, according to Osnos, is that we’re now left with an “urgent appetite, at home and abroad, to divine what had made” the 46th president—“how he thought, what he carried, and what he lacked.”
In a way, this uncertainty reflects our moment’s deeper tensions between stasis and change. Is what’s needed a restoration of the “normal”—of the world as it was before the pandemic and the destructive narcissism of the Trump presidency? Or does countering the virus and the dynamics that led to Trump require a broader political shift—an attempt to create a society defined by greater solidarity and egalitarianism and the expansion of freedom that these might permit?
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Throughout the book, Osnos presents Biden as a man open to either prospect. In his telling, Biden is a figure who may well be willing to use his power to press for sweeping legislation on climate change, to invest in caregiving, to make it easier for workers to organize, and his first months in office have suggested the possible return of a style of liberalism absent for a generation. Here is Biden, giving a Twitter speech that is the most pro-union statement from a president in a generation! There he is, offering his support to an infrastructure bill that relies heavily on taxing corporations and appears to draw on the kind of legislation that only recently was denounced as a “green dream” by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. His coronavirus rescue measures not only supply aid to state and local governments that might stave off cuts to social services and education, they provide support that will make life significantly easier for working-class and poor families (albeit through the dubious mechanism of tax credits, as the journalist Liza Featherstone has noted). Yet Biden has also backed away from a $15 minimum wage, remains opposed to Medicare for All, and has made clear his commitment to traditional US military power by authorizing a bombing strike in Syria.
Osnos sees Biden as a man compelled by the pandemic to become receptive to a politics he would have rejected only years before. But as many have observed, and as even Osnos suggests, there is little in Biden’s political history that indicates any certainty that this will continue. Once the more immediate emergencies of Covid and the current economic crisis have passed, will he have the will and the desire to realize a political program centered on creating a more just and egalitarian society—permanently expanding the welfare state, empowering workers to organize, embarking on the kind of public investment needed to blunt climate change?
Although Biden now portrays himself as “Joe from Scranton,” the child of hardscrabble northeastern Pennsylvania, one has to go back only a generation to find that much of his family hailed from money. His grandfather was an executive at the American Oil Company and enjoyed a life of privilege. But Biden’s father failed in many of his own business ventures, and a family that had started near the top of the economic pyramid tumbled down—so much so that by the time Biden was 10, they had left Pennsylvania to settle in Wilmington, where his father began selling used cars.
As tenuous as his father’s position may have been, Biden’s childhood in Wilmington was anything but working-class. He went to a private day school where, as Osnos puts it, he was a “middling but popular” student. He attended the University of Delaware and went to Syracuse Law School, primarily to be close to his girlfriend Neilia Hunter, who would soon become his first wife. At Syracuse, Biden horsed around and almost flunked out, getting in trouble for writing a paper that used the work of others without the proper citations. In these years, he was peripatetic and jocular, seeking to include friends in possible business deals and making time for the family reunion, the first communion of a niece or nephew, or a gathering at the pizza shop with old school pals.
An affable guy, sure, but a president? In an age of student rebellion, Biden proved distinctly uninterested in the issues raised by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. An institutionalist from the start, he instead looked to electoral politics—not to bring the politics of his generation into the halls of power so much as to enter them himself.
After graduating from Syracuse, Biden returned to Wilmington, where he briefly served as a public defender before running for the New Castle County Council. From this post, at the age of 29, he challenged Republican incumbent J. Caleb Boggs for his seat in the US Senate. Boggs had represented Delaware as a senator for 12 years, but Biden managed to win the seat.
In some ways, Biden’s defeat of Boggs has parallels with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s toppling of 10-term Representative Joe Crowley in her first congressional race. But unlike AOC, whose political awakening came during Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, Biden was not really part of the social movements of his day. He had never been very involved in the anti-war or the civil rights movement, and he kept his distance from the New Left. He was more like a 1972 version of Pete Buttigieg, absent the academic credentials: a clever young man who could embody youthful energy, even passion, but without an oppositional politics.
Once in the Senate, Biden quickly became known as the “Democratic Party’s leading anti-busing crusader,” Osnos writes, opposed to the use of busing to desegregate Wilmington’s schools. In many ways, he amassed a record that one might strain to term “moderate,” voting for the 1994 crime bill, for welfare “reform,” and for the war in Iraq. As head of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, Biden refused to allow testimony from other women concerning instances of sexual harassment by the Supreme Court nominee similar to those reported by Anita Hill. But rhetorically, at least, he has always tried to present himself as a politician for the downtrodden, a leader who would restore Americans’ declining faith in government.
Biden was never quite like the other New Democrats, a roster that included his contemporaries Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and (years later) Barack Obama. His approach was never as technocratic as theirs, his commitment to markets never as ideological. Instead, he has long sought to appeal to the white working class, to position himself as part of it, even if this was as much a question of salesmanship and fantasy as anything else.
Given that it wasn’t backed by much substance, this ambition could also get him into trouble. The turning point of his 1988 campaign came when he lifted a speech directly from Neil Kinnock, the head of Britain’s Labour Party, in one of the primary debates that year. “Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family to ever go to a university?” he asked. “Was it because our fathers and mothers were not bright?… My ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after twelve hours and play football for four hours?” Biden, however, never had any coal miners in his family; the words were taken from Kinnock’s speech. (Indeed, as the historian Gabriel Winant has written in The Guardian, Biden’s only personal connection to the coal industry was a distant relative who died in 1911 and had actually owned a mine.) He’d cited Kinnock before, so a case could be made that in the pressure and anxiety of the debates, Biden simply forgot to attribute the source. But the press soon uncovered his earlier plagiarism incident in law school, as well as a cringe-inducing failure to credit Robert F. Kennedy for the lines in another campaign speech, and shortly thereafter, Biden was out of the race.
The imbroglio with Kinnock’s speech reflected Biden’s larger plight as a politician: He wanted to present himself as a standard-bearer for the old working class, while lacking any real connection to its members and not necessarily doing all that much to advocate on their behalf. In the end, however, these gestures to a working-class style without a working-class politics paid off for him. It was precisely his image as Scranton Joe, someone who could speak to blue-collar workers, that made him attractive to Obama as a running mate in 2008. The Illinois senator, a university professor with a reputation for aloofness and playing it cool, saw in the political veteran a valuable point of identification. Here was someone who could signal Obama’s own moderation and help him connect with older white voters. And this symbolic identification stripped of a larger political program was partly also what brought the Democratic establishment to rally around Biden in 2020. As he assured wealthy voters at an early fundraiser, “Nothing would fundamentally change.”
If Biden’s attempt to identify with the working class has always been more aspiration than reality, the key aspect of his personal history that Osnos emphasizes is his experience of tragedy. The shocking death of his first wife and their baby daughter in a 1972 car accident that left him a single parent with two young sons, both injured in the crash, was only the first of his personal trials. More would follow: his own brain aneurysm and near-death in 1988 and, much more recently, the death of his son Beau from brain cancer at 46. Then there is his son Hunter, who has struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction for much of his life while also pursuing a career as a lobbyist and investor and getting entangled in shady deals with various foreign firms, with little regard for the effect it might have on his father’s career.
Biden has indeed suffered a great deal, and it is hard to imagine at times how he endured—in particular how he managed to sustain his political career during the years after the death of his wife and daughter, as his siblings and parents scrambled to help with his two small boys. But many journalistic accounts rely on these experiences to provide Biden with a political gravitas that isn’t always there. At points, the inescapable grief he has had to bear begins to stand in for the weight of history in his life and the limits of his own political achievements.
Osnos falls prey to this temptation to transmute Biden’s personal story into a larger politics. At times, the image that emerges is affecting. Describing how, during the 2020 campaign, Biden’s aides tried to have him speak on the phone every day with a “regular person,” Osnos recounts the day last spring when Biden was connected through a campaign worker with Mohammad Qazzaz, the owner of a coffee-roasting business in Dearborn, Mich., who had recently tested positive for the coronavirus and was attempting to quarantine in his house away from his two kids. His 2-year-old daughter kept knocking on his bedroom door, trying to get him to come out. Qazzaz choked up as he told Biden about how much he wanted to open the door for his little girl, but he was terrified of infecting her. Right away, Biden offered his own story of loss, a time when his two small sons didn’t understand the tragedy that had just happened to them all. He suggested how Qazzaz could connect with his daughter: by playing a game through the door, telling her a story. The two men were scheduled to speak for only a few minutes, but they wound up talking for more than 20.
Despite its staginess, this tale evokes Biden as a caregiver, someone who once had to stanch his own confused sorrow to guide frightened children. But for Osnos, it is also an example of his abilities as a leader for our moment. Biden’s experiences of loss, Osnos tells us, might make him the perfect president in a time when so many are dealing with death, illness, and despair. Drawing on an ability to empathize born of his history of grief, Biden may be a “weathervane,” Osnos suggests, a leader who will follow the calls for greater social spending, bold action on climate change, and steps toward racial justice. As the country reels from the public health crisis of the past year and the various pathologies that it has highlighted, the implication is that Biden may be willing to cast off the institutions and establishment he’s spent his life serving and push for more radical responses to the disasters unfolding around us.
Although Biden began his campaign with the narrow goal of defeating Donald Trump, Osnos argues, over the course of 2020 he began to awake to the reality that the “emergency” was even bigger than he had imagined. In this context, Biden might not provide “exalted rhetoric,” but “for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.”
Osnos is far from alone in this hope. For many liberals, Biden and Kamala Harris represent a resounding defeat for Trump and Trumpism. Their election demonstrates a repudiation of the racist right and the forces of white supremacy, as well as a rejection of Trump’s gleeful hostility to public health in the pandemic. The ascendance of Biden and Harris means the nation is back on course: Experts can reign once again; policy can be science we believe in; liberals can once more extol America as a beacon of hope on the global stage; and everyone can start talking about politics again in a civil and respectful way.
This overriding goal of restoring order and faith in competent technocrats is in tension, however, with the notion that Biden should press for a more sweeping response to the nation’s problems—bold, dramatic change that will be achieved not through civil discourse and the policies recommended by mainstream economists but through a politics of conflict and mass mobilizations. Whatever coherence this narrative may possess is provided by the notion that even though Biden is a creature of the establishment himself, he has a gift for understanding, through his own painful history, the struggles and loss that so many of his constituents face. Looking at Biden’s personal story becomes a way of eliding the world from which he comes and which has shaped his political commitments.
For critics on the left, the election’s significance is less clear and far less rosy. Yes, Biden and Harris won, but Trump’s continued strength and especially his appeal to working-class voters (and his notable gains among Latinx voters), as well as the weakness of down-ballot Democrats, suggest the “class dealignment” of the parties, as the historian Matthew Karp terms it. Meanwhile, the failure of the Sanders campaign, as the journalist Jamie Merchant and others have argued, points to the difficulties of trying to build a left politics at a time when many collective organizations—including labor unions—are on the defensive and when many people’s actual social experience is one of fragmentation, isolation, and fear. A politics that actually challenges entrenched power and wealth cannot simply be created from above, and it cannot be achieved without a considerable break from the past.
With the likes of David Brooks and Ezra Klein hailing Biden’s presidency as “transformational,” one popular theme to emerge has been that Biden is focused on policy rather than on political rhetoric; he has mostly chosen to stay away from divisive words. For all the comparisons to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no money-changers are being thrown out of the temple here, and that’s all to the good.
Yet this cheerful assessment seems to breeze past the larger uncertainties, the tentative shifts, not just for Biden but for the whole country. Might not the absence of a political language, a framework to make sense of what’s happening, reflect the president’s own divided loyalties, not his canny strategic sense? If Biden was so willing to turn away from pressing for a higher minimum wage, what chance is there that he will work his old Senate connections to drum up support for changes to the legal infrastructure that would make it easier for people to organize unions, or use the presidency to lay out a moral vision that shames and marginalizes those legislators who oppose them? More deeply, will the steps toward reimagining the public sector represented by the coronavirus relief bill crystallize into a fuller commitment to the communal resources—health care, schools, day care, transit, parks—upon which we all rely? And absent a politics that has the power and the capacity to rally people against the deadly hierarchies that rule our lives, to really deliver a more just and equal society, won’t Trumpism—with its clear division of the world into enemies and friends, its crude and racist version of solidarity, its conspiracy theories that offer a compelling (if loony) explanation of power—continue to thrive, even if the Donald himself slinks off to a Twitterless obscurity in Mar-a-Lago?
These are the questions that only the next few years can answer, and the landscape may be shifting quickly, in the warehouses and hospitals and schools of the country as much as in the capital. But one thing is clear: The losses of the pandemic time are not simply the inevitable outcome of the natural order’s cruel twists of fate. They reflect in harsh detail the familiar inequalities of our lives. In this bleak landscape, the language of mourning and of solace is not enough. What we need is a language of outrage—and a politics of it too.