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Can Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump?

The Democratic presidential hopeful and veteran insider could end the Trump era on 3 November. If he succeeds, will he set the US on a path to renewal?

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When Barack Obama chose his running mate in 2008, he did not pick somebody who was, like him, a history-making force. He went for Joe Biden, who, during the primary, had said of Obama, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” And yet Obama chose him anyway.

Biden had decades of Senate experience, especially on foreign policy, that the Democratic presidential nominee lacked. But by choosing Biden, Obama showed he could overlook an older white man calling him “articulate” and “clean”. He could show voters, and specifically white voters, that saying “Yes We Can” didn’t have to be scary.

The US is on another journey with Joe Biden, who is trying to tell voters that what comes next need not be foreboding; it could be familiar, decent and safe. But after eight years of Obama and four years of Donald Trump, the US is split on the kind of trip it wants to take. Some Americans want to return to a sense of calm and normalcy in the wake of Covid-19, with a president who does not cast people who disagree with him as traitors, lambast the press as the enemy of the people, or say those who want greater racial justice hate their country. But other Americans believe that “normal”, with its societal dysfunctions and extreme inequalities, is what got us into this dark place.

The first big question, then, is whether Biden can appeal to both those groups and win the White House. The second big question is what a Biden presidency will look like if he does.

***

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr grew up in 1940s and 1950s Pennsylvania (in working-class Scranton, as he often mentions) and in Delaware, a sliver of America’s eastern seaboard between Washington, DC and New York City. His father was a used-car salesman descended from British and French immigrants. His mother, to go by Biden’s depictions of her, was an Irish-American matriarch. She was the sort of parent who, on learning that a teacher had made fun of her son’s stutter, threatened to beat up the teacher.

Biden was not a strong student, but he was popular, an athlete, and became class president. He studied history and political science at the University of Delaware. This was the 1960s, but Biden was hardly part of the counterculture. He got married (to Neilia Hunter, a teacher he had met on spring break), had three children and studied for a law degree at Syracuse University College of Law – studies that Biden deemed “boring”.

Law was interesting in one way, though: it helped bring him into politics. In 1969 Biden began working at the law firm of a politically active Democrat, Sid Balick, who nominated him to a group that was trying to breathe new life into the Delaware Democratic Party. Having previously been registered as an Independent, Biden changed his registration to Democrat and won a seat on New Castle County Council. His long career in public office began in November 1970. There would be a certain poetry if, precisely half a century later, the autumn sun rose on 4 November on a Biden presidential win.


Credit: André Carrilho

The path and character of that half century was altered permanently, and almost ended, only two years later. In December 1972, six weeks after he had been elected the youngest senator at the time, Biden was in Washington, DC hiring staff when he received the news that his wife and daughter had been killed, and his sons Beau and Hunter severely injured, in a car crash while on a Christmas shopping trip. “For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” he would recall in a speech to families of fallen soldiers in 2012, “… because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”

Biden considered resigning from the Senate but was persuaded not to, and subsequently spent 36 years there, acquiring a reputation for hard-nosed bipartisanship and becoming chairman of the judiciary committee and the foreign relations committee. He unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination twice, the first time in 1987. During that campaign he was accused of plagiarising a speech by Neil Kinnock, then the leader of the UK Labour Party, by asking in a debate at the Iowa State Fair, “Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?”

Kinnock was not the only individual from whom Biden borrowed. His stated fondness for John F Kennedy – a fellow American-Irish Catholic Democrat politician – looked less like an homage and more like an attempt at dress-up when it transpired that Biden had, in 1987, reused parts of a 1967 speech of Robert Kennedy’s without giving credit.

***

He tried again for the presidency in 2008, a campaign that also included gaffes, but led to his becoming Obama’s running mate. According to those who worked with Biden when he was vice-president, he knows how to work the system of the US government. In the White House Biden could be relied upon to offer an opposing view, ensuring counter-arguments were aired in discussions. He kept a line open to middle America, helping to advance measures aimed at supporting jobs through the economic crisis and at curbing gun violence.

Biden, who married his second wife, Jill, in 1977, was also known for insisting that staff take time for their family commitments; ignoring those at the expense of work, he told them, was a sackable offence. That family was so important to Biden would make the 2015 death of his son and political heir, Beau Biden, from cancer even more poignant. Stricken with grief once more, Biden announced that he would not seek the Democratic nomination in 2016 and endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Grief is an inescapable theme of Biden’s political life. He speaks often of how he knows what it is like to experience it. “For anyone who’s experienced the kind of loss that he has, that would be central to how they see themselves in the world,” one Biden campaign staffer told me. “Even when you’re not talking about grief… you can feel it in the background of anything he’s doing.”

Take Brayden Harrington, a teenager who, like Biden, has a stutter. The two met on the campaign trail, and Harrington then featured at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in August, where Biden accepted the party’s nomination. You cannot watch Biden speak to a child, the staffer said, and not think of the children that he has lost.

This ability to empathise with others’ suffering has a special salience. The US is currently mourning the death of more than 200,000 people, and millions of livelihoods, because of Covid-19. In his messages to the DNC, Biden said that Trump was not equipped for the job and that his mishandling of the pandemic had caused avoidable grief to so many American families.

***

Biden speaks of a different time in US politics, one in which politicians could work together across divisions, or at least be decent to each other. To many, that is an attractive offer: a return to politicians shaking hands, and not using Twitter or television to attack or defend the latest nonsensical thing the president has said. Biden has experience. He is sewn into the fabric of 20th- century American politics, and his candidacy nostalgically promises a return to a more decent society. A Biden ad over the summer featured him in a 1967 Corvette Stingray, and saying, “I love this car, nothing but incredible memories.” As his campaign staffer put it: “For the moment we’re in, versus the candidate we’re running against… Biden’s the perfect candidate. People are just looking to get back to some stability and predictability.”

Yet the good old days were not so good for everyone, and Biden also embodies that reality. In the 1970s, he led opposition to “busing”, whereby under desegregation efforts black students were transported to schools in predominantly white districts. He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which defined marriage for federal purposes as between a man and a woman. He supported the US invasion of Iraq. Only last year did he explicitly withdraw his support for the Hyde amendment, which restricts federal abortion funding only to cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother’s life. His defenders argue that times have changed, and Biden’s views with them.

While that bothers many on the left, the Republicans are levelling very different criticisms: that Biden is an empty vessel (“Sleepy Joe” in Trump’s nomenclature) for the ideas of the radical left. This line of attack, which Trump used repeatedly in the first presidential debate, has three main weaknesses.

The first is that little in Biden’s long political history suggests he is any sort of radical. The second is that it lowers expectations, making, say, Biden delivering a solid speech seem like an achievement. And the third is that it is a reminder of what Biden promises he will bring back: the kind of calm that, at present, appears a distant dream.

Biden is currently polling well ahead of Trump nationally and ahead of Trump in most swing states. Polls, though, are not votes. If the Democrats are to escape a repeat of 2016 – where Clinton polled ahead for almost the entire the campaign and still lost the electoral college – Biden will need to bring out black voters; those, such as white suburban women, who were expected to vote for Clinton but instead chose Trump; and the young, registered voters who stayed at home four years ago.

***

Biden won the nomination four years after a woman, finally, led a major party’s ticket. That Clinton lost to Trump, widely derided as a misogynist, is likely one of the reasons that so many women – including the California senator Kamala Harris, now Biden’s running mate, and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren – ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Seth Masket, who has spoken to Democratic activists for an upcoming book on 2016 and its fallout, Learning from Loss, believes that an “overwhelming prioritisation of electability” helps to explain why the female candidates lost out to Biden. The sense that Biden “could win and win comfortably” as a white, male, familiar, moderate candidate beat all other imperatives, including exorcising the ghosts of Clinton’s defeat to a man who has boasted of assaulting women and been accused of sexual misconduct.

But being electable and being elected are distinct things. Women voters might be inclined to support Biden but they do not all want the same thing from him.

Take three important groups.

There are suburban women – and particularly the suburban white women patronisingly known as “Panera moms”, after an upmarket café chain – who tend to vote, but swing between the Democrats and Republicans. In the 2016 presidential election, 47 per cent of white women voted for Trump. But in the 2018 mid-term elections they were credited with helping the Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives; 59 per cent of white, college- educated women voted for Democratic House candidates in 2018, while just 49 per cent did so in 2016. Politically, suburban white women are thought to be moderate and receptive to conservative messages.

The second group Biden needs to mobilise is progressive younger women, who tend to be more left wing and are sometimes uncomfortable about his record of invading women’s personal space (he has a history of being overly tactile). An allegation of sexual assault by a former Biden staffer fell from the news cycle when the woman’s lawyer dropped her as a client in May, after a report by CNN raised questions about her background. “If my students are any indication, they’re just not on board with Biden. A lot of them were Bernie Sanders supporters,” Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said, adding that they are “truly appalled by the touching, handsy history of being overly affectionate with people”.

Biden has, so far, made relatively few concessions on subjects important to Sanders supporters, such as student debt and healthcare. But he has made some relatively ambitious commitments on climate change.

The third important group of women voters are those of colour, who in recent years have been the most loyal of all demographic groups to Democratic presidential candidates. But as with non-white voters more widely, Biden must work to convert that inbuilt advantage into votes.

***

At points in the primary Biden seemed to be stumbling over his record on race issues. Bluntly put, his reputation for bipartisanship in the Senate was won partly thanks to a willingness to work with racist elements in American politics. During one primary debate, Kamala Harris tore into his record on busing and his former cooperation with segregationists. Other concerns included his partial responsibility for the outcome of the Anita Hill hearings in 1991 (in which an all-white, all-male panel of senators treated a black woman’s accusations of sexual harassment against a Supreme Court nominee with incredulity) and his support for the draconian 1994 crime bill that contributed to the US’s high incarceration rates, particularly of black men. His racially insensitive gaffes are too many to list.

Yet it is a measure of the complexity of Biden’s political identity that he commands significant support from black voters. Jim Clyburn, a leading African-American member of the House of Representatives and a veteran of the civil rights movement, endorsed Biden ahead of the primary in South Carolina, transforming his prospects after a sluggish start in Iowa and New Hampshire. A large proportion of black Democrats chose Biden on Super Tuesday in March: 58 per cent in Texas and 62 per cent in North Carolina, according to exit polls.


Power moves: Biden, left, in the White House Situation Room during the Osama bin Laden raid, 2011. Credit: Pete Souza/The New York Times/RE/Eyevine

When I put it to Seth Masket, the author of a book about Clinton’s defeat, that there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm about Biden, he said: “I would say that certainly the African-American voters I spoke to and activists I spoke to would disagree with that. They seemed quite enthusiastic for Biden.” He paused and added: “They saw him as someone who could win and someone they trusted.”

This sense of trust is bound up with Biden’s historical role as Obama’s vice-president. His older errors on racial justice “pale relative to what he’s done in the past decade”, said Theodore Johnson of the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive think tank.

Yet black voters, like all groups of voters, are not a monolith. Between Obama’s first and second terms, Johnson notes, turnout among younger (often more left wing) black voters decreased; it was their older counterparts who pushed black voter turnout in 2012 above that of 2008. That Clinton had been Obama’s secretary of state and the black voter turnout rate declined by 7 percentage points in the 2016 election shows that links to the former president are no guarantee of that level of support.

With Biden making insensitive gaffes in the heat of the campaign – in May he said that any black voter struggling to choose between him and Trump “ain’t black” – it is not certain that the trend will reverse. “He’s going to have to be very deliberate in outreach and resourcing,” Johnson said, especially in finely balanced Midwestern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that gave Trump his electoral college lead in 2016 and where African-American turnout could make the difference.

The importance of this voting bloc to Biden was underscored by his vice-presidential pick, Kamala Harris, who, as the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, is the first black woman, and the first Asian American, to be on a major party ticket. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, have produced waves of protests. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations have included relatively small but widely reported violent incidents and been accompanied by calls from the left to defund the police. Biden and Harris have struck a delicate balance: backing criminal justice reform and showing understanding for anger, while cautioning against violence and opposing police defunding.

Trump has used the violence in Kenosha to warn that, if Biden is elected president, the prisons will be emptied and the supposed lawlessness of Democrat-run cities will spread across the country. “No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” he told the Republican National Convention (RNC) on 28 August. It is a bogus threat, of course, but might prove effective in nudging scared white voters into the Trump camp.

Yet shorn of the complexities of his problematic past on race and bolstered by the inescapable reality that the violence is playing out today, in Trump’s America, Biden’s emphasis on decency and empathy pointed to a way through. On 26 August he and Harris called Blake’s family; Jacob Blake Sr later appeared on CNN and said, “It was like I was speaking to my uncle and one of my sisters… It felt like they knew what was going on.”

The Democratic nominee then distanced himself from the excesses of the protests. “The violence we’re witnessing is happening under Donald Trump,” Biden said in response to the RNC. “Not me. It’s getting worse, and we know why.”

***

On 22 May Biden was asked on CNBC if he was prepared to govern as a progressive (the term usually associated with the left of the Democratic Party). He responded, “I’m going to be Joe Biden.”

Progressive voters, strategists and congressional staffers are split on Biden. Some see grounds for hope. The Democratic nominee has secured full-throated endorsements from both Bernie Sanders, his vanquished primary rival, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the tribune of the new generation of Democratic leftists. The unity task forces trying to stitch together the two wings of the party are a channel of influence for the left. (And there are precedents providing grounds for optimism: Biden may lack the youth of the Kennedy brothers but echoes elements of their idealistic style. Another relevant reference from that turbulent era might be Lyndon B Johnson, who did not start as a progressive but pushed through the most transformative civil rights legislation in US history.)

Nothing sums up the tensions between Biden the mature and electable statesman, and Biden the unsatisfactory artefact not suited to a radical moment more than his view on foreign policy. Biden’s long history in Washington means a long history of support for the wars Washington has waged. He is less likely to support, say, attaching conditions to aid to Israel, and he reportedly vetoed any reference to Israeli “occupation” in the Democratic platform. Many on the left want to dismantle the military industrial complex and dramatically rethink America’s role in the world; Biden, they worry, wants to reassume the role the US had before Trump.

But to his supporters, his foreign policy record is one of the things that most commends him. “The next president will need to be able to step in on day one and clean up the damage that President Trump has done,” said Representative Ami Bera, “while also presenting a vision for how to address an increasingly complex and chaotic world.”

Thomas O Melia, a senior diplomat in the Obama administration, agreed: “Biden clearly is the one that doesn’t need any training [or] familiarisation.” Melia recalled being in the room when Biden, as vice-president, met the then Ukrainian prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman. He struck a “friendly and stern” balance between getting his interlocutor on side and impressing the need for progress on corruption in the country. “As experienced and as smart as he is, he will do what the current president does not do – read the memos and listen to advice.”

To hear Melia describe the encounter is to get to the heart of all the many Bidens. He is many things, yes, but also one: a consummate, lifelong politician who will work any room he walks into, persuading and cajoling, charming and irritating, splitting differences and striking balances, not always getting those things right but at worst winning credit for trying. Those are reasons to like him and to dislike him, according to your instincts and perhaps to where he lands on the topics that matter to you, but they are a form of consistency. It is probably here, rather than any idealism – or cynicism, for that matter – that the Kennedy parallels are most apt.

***

This is why, for all the policy inconsistencies, for all of the facets of the man, one can say that there has been a consistent, political Biden. This, ultimately, is the promise of the Biden presidency. At the time of writing the New Statesman’s electoral projection gives him an 85.1 per cent chance of winning. But Trump, recently recovered from Covid-19, has a committed base that will vote for him no matter what.

Trump, in the weeks before the election, appears to be spinning out of control. His poll numbers sank after the first debate, in which the president interrupted, yelled and insulted both Biden and the moderator. After contracting Covid, the president told the country not to let the pandemic dominate their lives and pointed to his own recovery – a message that can’t go down well with the people who have lost loved ones to the virus. So long as the focus remains on the pandemic, which the president handled so disastrously that a gathering at the White House became a super-spreader event, Biden will likely remain ahead in the polls. And politicians, pundits and voters will continue to wonder whether that tells us anything.

There is much that can go wrong for Joe Biden, and for American democracy, given that the sitting president is already undermining the legitimacy of the election, spreading conspiracy theories about widespread fraud and refusing to say whether he will concede if he loses.

If Biden wins, it will not be because he promises a bold vision or sweeping plans. Instead, he offers pragmatic politics. He says something, it is well received or it is not; he says sorry or he does not; he changes course or he does not. He convenes experts; perhaps he listens to them. He takes two steps back, one step forward. He gets defensive, he tells people not to vote for him, he apologises. He moves from working with segregationists to working as the first black president’s sidekick, to putting the first black woman on a major party ticket.

There are many in the US who think that politics as usual – or as usual used to be – is no longer an especially attractive offer in the Trump era. The country has taken so many steps backwards – and lunges sideways and cartwheels downhill – that it no longer has time for two steps forward, one step back. But there were enough Democrat members to whom Joe Biden appealed sufficiently for him to win the primary. And should that appeal be enough that he wins the presidency then this, more than any one policy or platform promise, is what Americans know they will get. Not an ideologue. Not a reality star. A politician, once again, who would be president. 

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?