Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden in the White House, January 20 (Photo: AP)
This week, Joe Biden arrived on the stage of world history for a role that he had auditioned for throughout much of his adult life. He first appeared on the American political scene as a potential presidential candidate in 1987 when, for a brief while, he was deemed the bright young hope for the Democratic Party. But, before long, his campaign ended thanks to a plagiarism scandal. Two decades later, by 2008, he was a well-known figure in Washington DC, even if for the rest of America he was either a well-meaning but gaffe-prone political presence or one of those bland politicians whom you recognise on TV but somehow misremember their name. He was familiar but not famous. Despite being a seasoned politician of the Senate (a post he had held since 1972, since the age of 29), he was bested by a charismatic fellow Senator from Chicago, Barack Obama, who eventually offered him a job as his vice president. By 2016, he was seen as too old (he was 74 then); the other challenge, perhaps more insurmountable, was the seemingly foreordained presidency of Hillary Clinton. She brought with her a vast war chest of funding and donors coupled with an army of political operators and sympathetic media. Biden saw the writing on the wall and returned to private life as a grand eminence of American politics. He followed the well-worn tradition of giving speeches for a fee and occasionally appearing on national TV to reminisce about the Obama years just as former US President Donald Trump began to shred many norms of American politics.
By 2018, Biden began to present himself as an exasperated citizen who was aghast at the direction that Trump had begun to take America. To many, he was testing waters for a presidential bid, but the smart money was not on him. In fact, by the summer of 2019, Biden’s putative campaign had sputtered to a near-stop. The finances had begun to run dry, donors had vanished and the all-knowing cadre of cable TV experts dismissed him as a well-meaning but ultimately futile last stand of a political career that didn’t know when to quit. The conventional wisdom was twofold after the Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada primaries for the Democratic ticket, all of which Biden lost: one of his rivals in the campaign (Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) would go on to face Trump in the final presidential elections. The other was that Trump would most probably win. Sure, Trump was brutish and rough at the edges, they reasoned, but the stock market was booming, unemployment was low and tax cuts were popular with the Republicans.
IT WAS in this context—one in which Biden had been written off amid Democratic primary candidates and the hold of Trump over American and Republican politics was seemingly permanent—that Joe Biden had his first primary win in South Carolina. This was thanks to his old allies such as veteran Congressman Jim Clyburn (“We know Joe. But more importantly, Joe knows us.”) who told South Carolina’s predominantly African-American voters to stick with Biden. And they did. Then followed the Super Tuesday primaries, when Democratic voters in 14 states cast their votes and of which Biden ended up winning 10.
Suddenly, two things became clear. The long years of service in the Senate and later as vice president were seen as an asset in this electoral cycle, especially as Democrats recoiled from one assault after another that Trump inflicted on their political preferences. Biden began to appear as a candidate who would return America to regular programming rather than use the bully pulpit of the presidency to play carnival barker on Twitter. The other, and perhaps more important aspect, was that the entire Obama-era electoral machine—a ferociously efficient campaign team—began to coalesce around Biden. It is a testament to Biden’s talent for the underappreciated art of management that during the past two years there have been no leaks, infighting in public view or mismanagement of resources from his campaign. The result was a steady accretion of perception of stability which was in direct contrast with Trump, who rejoiced in playing a bull in search of many china shops to enter.
‘This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope of renewal and resolve through a crucible for the ages,’ says Joe Biden, US President, January 20
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By the summer of 2020, there arrived two great sources of turmoil. One of them was the endemic problem of police brutality—neither new nor unforeseen but tragically a feature, rather a bug, of the American political economy—which provoked violent protests that quickly turned into riots across American cities. The other was an exogenous shock—a retrovirus from China, via Europe, that got on a plane and arrived on American shores. The monumentally catastrophic response of the Trump administration that followed—from simple messaging regarding wearing masks, which was turned into a partisan issue, to the stunning failure seen last week, when governors across America realised that the federal government had failed to acquire and provision for enough vaccines—set the stage for millions to be infected by the Covid-19 virus and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Unemployment and permanent closures of many businesses followed. Suddenly, for the great middle-class of America that lives in the no man’s land between Democrat and Republican identities, one fact became blindingly obvious: leadership matters and leaders matter.
The challenges facing Biden are neither new—with the exception of the urgent need to address Covid with seriousness and resources—nor unknown to many in his cabinet. From an equally belligerent and strategically minded China to mending relations with the European Union, from returning to multilateral organisations to identifying what can be done to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal, Biden’s foreign policy programme will involve some form of return to the normal, albeit in a much diminished form of American commitments. It is domestically that Biden faces his greatest challenges. From race relations to economic inequality, from a potentially explosive rise in white nationalism that can metastasise into a homegrown insurgency to efficiently regulating America’s behemoth 21st century industries with 19th century laws, from imminent questions about new waves of Central American refugees to an urgent need for immigration reform, the problems that stare Biden on Day One speak to the amount of work that needs to be done to merely return to a semblance of normalcy.
All of this raises a question: what are we to make of Biden himself? He is an old school politician—one who is happier shaking hands and kissing babies rather than wading through the minutiae of policy. This may very well be to his advantage given the polarised nature of how reality is described by the American political elite. It is likely that many of his own supporters on the left may end up discovering that Biden is more centrist than they would like and many of his critics on the right will realise he is more radical than they had hoped for. Like an old fox, which he is, Biden will have to summon his life’s hardwon political skills to appear as many things to many people leading them to do what they have always done—underestimate him. Irrespective, one can’t shake the feeling that while this is a caretaker presidency, he has been summoned by history to perform the difficult act of course correction and set the stage for the next generation of Democratic politicians who will have to govern a country that will be less white and more unequal as the global climate crisis worsens. If Biden does manage to revive America, the irony may very well be that he will be forgotten once America returns to prosperity and health. Instead, if he fails, he will be remembered as the first in the long line of unsuccessful presidents who followed in the wake of the incendiary Trump years and who failed to stem the decline of American power. It is safe to say that Biden—after a lifetime of public service, during which he often laboured alone, tending to the weeds and flowers of retail politics—will happily choose to be forgotten. But in that self-effacement lies Biden’s great ambition which has hid itself in plain sight, which is often unseen due to the form it appears in: a plain-speaking decency.