Evan Osnos’s neatly timed biography of Joe Biden, a collection of pieces previously published in the New Yorker, is brimming with insights into America’s new president-elect. The insights are not always flattering. “When Barack Obama, newly arrived in the Senate in 2005, heard Biden hold forth in a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee,” Osnos writes, “he passed an aid a three-word note: ‘Shoot. Me. Now’.” Over more than three decades on Capitol Hill – “the windbag Mecca” – Biden had earned a reputation as a self-important blowhard with a “harrowing tendency” to put his foot in his mouth.
Still, a few years later, Biden found himself serving alongside Obama in the White House, where the two men formed an unusually tight personal and professional bond. “Obama took to telling aides and audiences that naming Biden vice president was the best political decision he had made,” Osnos reports. The trials they faced together – healthcare reform, Republican obstructionism, familial loss – “had brought them closer than many expected.”
Joe Biden: American Dreamer is a richly detailed profile of the 77-year-old Democrat. Osnos – an award-winning journalist – spoke with more than 100 people in Biden’s orbit and interviewed the former Senator four times between 2011 and July of this year. Throughout the book, you get the sense that Osnos is simultaneously underwhelmed by his subject, on an intellectual level, and drawn to him on an emotional one. It’s not hard to see why. As the past ten days have demonstrated, Biden, for all his flaws, is a seasoned political survivor; a mid-century American archetype made up of equal parts luck, grief and grit.
Much of Biden’s political – and, perhaps, latent paternal – appeal lies in his tragic backstory. In 1972, his first wife Neilia was killed in a car crash alongside the couple’s infant daughter, Naomi. In 2015, his son Beau, a rising star inside the Democratic Party, died after a punishing battle with brain cancer.
These experiences imbued Biden with a singular political skill: the capacity to convey and evoke empathy on a mass scale. In the run-up to last week’s vote, the contrast with Donald Trump, who obsessed over his own perceived victimhood even as American COVID fatalities topped 230,000, was stark. The incoming Commander-in-Chief is “unlikely to supply much of the exalted rhetoric that reaches into a nation’s soul,” Osnos writes. “But, for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.”
What Biden – for 35 years, a staunch centrist in the Senate – will actually do as president is less clear. Two months out from inauguration day, he faces a dizzying array of challenges: record unemployment rates, deepening racial divisions, the residual force of 70 million Trump voters, and a still-raging pandemic.
The coronavirus crisis may have had a radicalising effect on his politics. In the summer of 2019, Biden told a room full of donors in New York City that “nothing would fundamentally change” under his leadership. “The truth of the matter is … I need you very badly,” he said. But by the spring of 2020, his message had shifted. “I want to be the most progressive president since FDR,” he reportedly told Bernie Sanders, his erstwhile primary opponent, in March.
One of Biden’s biggest tasks will be holding an increasingly disparate Democratic coalition together. The American left is much better organised today than it was when Obama was in power and Biden will have to contend with an influential socialist caucus in Congress, led by the likes of Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Obama thinks Biden will work with leftwing Democrats to enact far-reaching social and economic reform. “If you look at Joe Biden’s goals and Bernie Sanders’s goals, they’re not that different, from a forty-thousand-foot level,” the ex-president tells Osnos. But this seems like an optimistic assessment. Biden has consistently opposed universal healthcare. He has no intention of ‘defunding’ US police departments. And his sabre-rattling attacks on China indicate a hardline foreign policy not entirely dissimilar to that of the outgoing White House incumbent.
Moreover, Biden has always relished elaborate displays of political bipartisanship. In 1984, he sponsored a Senate amendment designed to limit public spending and cap the size of the federal deficit. In 1999, he voted to repeal Glass-Steagall, a crucial piece of Depression-era banking regulation loathed by Wall Street and the financial sector. And after 9/11, he backed the invasion of Iraq and lavished praise on George W. Bush. “At each pivotal moment, [the president] has chosen a course of moderation and deliberation,” he remarked from the Senate floor in 2002, as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were visibly laying the groundwork for war. “I believe he will continue to do so.”
Ultimately, for Osnos, what makes Biden unique is his ability to speak to working-class Americans. The hokey ‘Amtrak Joe’ routine looks implausible from a distance. (The Biden family is thought to have made $15 million from book deals and media appearances since 2016.) But it lends Biden an air of blue collar authenticity that other prominent Democratic politicians – the Obamas and the Clintons, in particular – lack. “For all his longevity in Washington, Biden has never quite belonged to the technocratic elite,” Osnos writes. “He is the first Democratic nominee without an Ivy League degree since Walter Mondale, in 1984.”
The overarching image Osnos projects is that of a veteran American legislator whose moment has finally, and improbably, arrived. Biden was close to quitting politics after Beau’s death, Osnos confirms, but felt compelled to re-enter the fray due to the horrors of the Trump presidency. “The circumstances of a life in full and a country in peril conspired to put Biden at the centre of an American reckoning,” Osnos writes. Biden’s choices in the coming months will determine how far that reckoning has to run.
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