It is easy to underestimate Joe Biden. In the memorable phrase of one British diplomat, speaking to him is like turning on a spigot that you cannot turn off. The former vice-president’s words, as Evan Osnos puts it, “inhabited a no-man’s-land between quality and quantity”. When you can follow his thread, what Biden says can be as corny as a Shirley Temple song. “I fell ass over tin cup in love,” was how Biden described meeting his first wife. For years, the large and still growing trove of choice “Bidenisms” have been a stock joke on late-night comedy shows.
Should Biden be elected as America’s 46th president on November 3, it will not be because of his soaring oratory. Nor, on the cusp of 78, will it be because of his youthful vigour. Though Barack Obama was his boss and John F Kennedy his childhood hero, no two figures could less resemble Biden. Yet somehow, against the apparent odds, he has reached the threshold of the most powerful job on Earth. What is it about Biden that most people seem to have missed?
One clue comes from how he won the 2020 nomination. Biden’s rivals underestimated him. Even when he was leading in the polls — which was almost always — most pundits downplayed his chances. Not only was Biden too rambling for people to imagine him taking the crown, he also seemed out of tune with his party’s increasingly leftwing base. To them, Biden was the face of all that was wrong with Democrats — the triangulating, deal-for-the-sake-of-it-making, corporate-tax-break-dispensing, senatorial traditionalist who spoke of Republicans as people of honour.
Moreover, his cash-strapped campaign was spending less in a month than Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, would spend on an average day. After Biden lost the first two contests — coming fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire — the political obituaries started to come out. Somebody else, perhaps Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, or Pete Buttigieg, the Indiana small-town mayor who was literally half Biden’s age, would win the Democratic nomination.
Then a tipping point arrived out of nowhere. Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman, endorsed Biden from among the still dizzyingly crowded primary field. Biden’s win in that state, where the Democratic electorate is heavily African-American, was a landslide. Almost all his rivals quickly dropped out and endorsed him. Moreover, they did so with unequivocal warmth. Nobody saw it coming, least of all Biden. Having run to the right of the field in the primaries, he has since tacked to the left in the general election. This is the mirror image of what a candidate is supposed to do. Yet it seems to be working. What kind of president would he make?
Osnos, who has been writing about Biden for years for The New Yorker, believes he could be more radical in office than people who have tracked his career might believe. Only rarely during Biden’s 36 years in the Senate was he seen as a liberal. He gave orations at the funerals of southern segregationists. He sponsored bills that pushed African-American incarceration rates through the roof. He was a devout supporter of the credit card industry. After he left the Senate, he was a reliable lieutenant in an Obama administration that disappointed the Democratic left.
Biden’s past screams moderation. But that may be misleading. What his career also shows is that he can read the direction of the tides — and they may have changed. As Osnos conveys, Biden is a “pol’s pol” — a politician to his fingertips. Like a good ice-hockey player, he anticipates where the puck is going rather than focusing on where it is now.
Two circumstances of Biden’s nomination were unique. First, he beat the left only because it was fragmented among several candidates, notably Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. His first job was to win their confidence, which he did. Biden’s general election platform incorporated much of what they stood for, including a lot of the so-called green new deal, free college for the middle class and a strong pro-union stance.
Second, his victory coincided with the pandemic. As Osnos shows in his beautifully written short volume, coronavirus has opened up a vast new political space for action. Osnos compares the conditions of Biden’s ascent to Franklin Delano Roosevelt inheriting the Great Depression. History records FDR as the man who saved America and then the world from fascism. Nobody saw him that way in 1932. Like Biden, Roosevelt was a “pol’s pol”, who understood the art of the possible.
What might be possible in America after 220,000 have died from coronavirus is very different from a year ago. Biden has changed with the circumstances. That includes knowing when to keep his mouth shut. Biden has kept a pretty threadbare campaign schedule — and not just because of social distancing. The strategy has been to make this a referendum on Donald Trump; the president must be given enough rope to hang himself. “The more he [Trump] talks, the better off I am,” Biden told Osnos. The more you think about that quip, the more interesting it is. After a career of world-beating prolixity, Biden may finally have learnt the value of silence.
Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 192 pages
Edward Luce is the FT’s US national editor
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