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.”
Compared to the sweeping liberal romanticism of Barack Obama and the raw political cynicism of Bill Clinton, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. is a void. There is simply nothing there. The figure that emerges from Yesterday’s Man — Branko Marcetic’s biting profile of the former senator and vice president, and now presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — doesn’t have a transformative national vision or an eye-catching policy platform or even a particularly interesting personal backstory to sell. At some point in the early 1970s, Biden decided that American elections were won and lost in the dead centre of the ideological spectrum — and that is precisely where he has stayed for the full span of his 50-year political career.
As Marcetic — a staff writer at Jacobin magazine — argues, being a centrist in American politics doesn’t make you a moderate. It just means that you’re prepared to strike legislative compromises with the hard-right, or with uniquely predatory forms of capital, in order to burnish your institutional credentials. Biden has done this time and time again in the US Senate, to the extent that ‘working across the aisle’ in a ‘bipartisan fashion’ is all that meaningfully exists of the 77-year-old’s political identity.