Joe Biden has been the future of Democratic politics for almost half a century, on and off. Observers have been predicting he would make it to the top ever since he was elected to the Senate in 1972, when he was 30. Declared obsolete after a second bid for the presidency in 2008 failed, Biden got back into the game when Obama picked him as his running mate. So far, the third time has proved to be the charm. Other than a turbulent few weeks in February, Biden led the 2020 Democratic field all the way. He has maintained a wide and steady lead over Donald Trump, and is odds-on to win in November.
Long foretold though it may be, Biden’s ascendancy in 2020 is puzzling. The man of the moment is a man out of time. His candidacy has a very different feel to Obama’s in 2008 (“Yes we can”), or Clinton’s in 2016 (“I’m with her”), or the Bernie Sanders insurgencies. It has no memorable hashtag, slogan or chant. It invokes no grand historic narrative. The Democratic Party, fired up by opposition to the incumbent, vibrates with youthful grass-roots activism, yet its champion is a septuagenarian who does not sell many T-shirts. In an era that rewards politicians who can generate viral tweets and colourful memes, Biden is conspicuously uninterested in social media. In an atmosphere of fierce tribalism, he speaks fondly of friendships with Republicans.
The conventional wisdom is that modern politicians must be able to “mobilise” voters and activists. Biden generates little enthusiasm. This is even true versus his current opponent: in polls, about two-thirds of Trump voters say they are enthusiastic about their candidate, versus only 40 per cent of Biden voters. The Trump campaign likes to think this is a critical difference, but may find it isn’t as telling as the fact the polls also put Biden in the strongest position of any challenger to an incumbent since records began.
Perhaps because he doesn’t seem like the kind of politician who wins elections these days, Biden has been consistently under-estimated by opponents and commentators. During 2019 it was said that his polling lead was soft and would collapse at the first shots of battle – which it did, but only briefly. Bested by Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in early primaries, he came back to win a highly competitive contest with room to spare. He has proved to be remarkably resilient.
Biden’s deceptive political strength derives from what appears to be his greatest weakness – his age. He grew up, politically, in a time when success depended on an ability to build coalitions, across parties and ideologies, rather than focusing on a core constituency. That means he never aligns himself fully with any one political group. Just as he was not a committed Clintonian centrist, today he is not a progressive. He aims to embody the prevailing ethos of his party, rather than to shape it in his own image.
Today, that kind of approach would not serve a young Democrat looking to win the support of party activists or make a name for themselves in the national media. But for the kind of political appeal required to win millions, as opposed to thousands, of votes, shallow and wide still beats deep and narrow. Most voters don’t love Biden, but very many of them think he’s OK, and being widely regarded as OK is a valuable, if now underrated, political currency.
Second, it means he is an expert player of the inside game of politics, an authentic artist of the deal. His approach is unashamedly transactional – you do this for me, I’ll do this for you, together we can all get something done. Who knows what conversations happened in the aftermath of his comeback victory in the South Carolina primary, but within days his closest competitors had dropped out, leaving him in a straight fight with Sanders. Biden then won Sanders’s endorsement in return for adopting large parts of his platform.
Third, he is not a natural progressive, in the contemporary sense, which makes it hard for the Republicans to demonise him as an America-hating radical. He is very far from illiberal (he pushed Obama into supporting same-sex marriage). But it is impossible to imagine Biden calling for the police to be defunded or for George Washington to be posthumously arraigned as racist. That puts him out of step with young Democrat activists, but in tune with the electorate that decides general elections.
It was black voters who largely delivered Biden’s decisive victories over Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the primary. According to the Pew Research Center, over two-thirds of black Democratic voters identify as moderate or conservative (whereas two-thirds of white Democrats describe themselves as liberal). In the general election, the polls show Biden doing exceptionally well among older white voters who usually vote Republican. Biden is probably the only Democrat who could have built this coalition of the non-woke.
If Biden wins in November, speculation over how long he will stay in the post will begin immediately. But the deeper question is whether the next Democratic president will come from its increasingly dominant progressive wing. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressives’ most prominent torchbearer, is a lavishly gifted politician who inspires fierce enthusiasm among Democratic activists. She is also, according to polling, one of the most unpopular politicians in the country.
Of course, things change. It is possible that over the next decade a greater share of the electorate will adopt the world-view of Democratic progressives. That is far from certain, however, and if it doesn’t come to pass, then the party’s next winning candidate will hail from its shrinking moderate wing. Either that, or AOC will have to become a little more like Joe Biden. He may be the future for quite a while yet.