When Joe Biden first ran for the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972, one of his campaign’s leaflets brandished encomiums from Democratic senators across the party’s ideological spectrum.
It was a shrewd piece of politics, elevating a 29-year old county council member to national status, at least on paper. And it spoke to every kind of Democrat in a year when a party badly divided by the Vietnam War and shaken by the gales of cultural conflict went down to a disastrous defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon.
Biden managed to run well ahead of the national ticket and defeated two-term Republican incumbent Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, not so much by attacking him as by suggesting that his time had passed. “He understands what’s happening today” was a Biden tag line.
Who can know how many Delaware voters imagined that the young, ambitious man they were sending to Washington would one day reach the White House? But what they saw were the gifts and the habits that culminated on Saturday in Biden’s election as the 46th president of the United States.
The unifier of 1972 brought a party of wide philosophical diversity together in 2020, helped immensely by every faction’s antipathy toward President Donald Trump. A man whose gifts for empathy were honed by his own suffering, Biden was also a politician’s politician. He remembered birthdays, attended funerals, called sick constituents in the hospital, even phoned parents whose children he worked with to tell them how brilliant their kids were—a surefire way to forge lifelong appreciation.
If all this was shrewd, it also reflected the gregariousness of a lover of Irish poets who, when he spoke to anyone, could go on and on—and on and on—because he plain likes to communicate. During his 1987 run for the presidency, the writer Richard Ben Cramerreported that Biden’s own advisers “talked about him like a wild stallion who’d never felt the bridle.”
But in 2020, the stallion discovered the virtues of discipline. His campaign presented itself to the world as a marvel of efficient internal solidarity. At its lowest points, it didn’t leak. When strategic decisions seemed off, there was little of the barely concealed backbiting that has destroyed many a campaign.
After flirting with other 2020 talents, rank-and-file Democrats settled on Biden in droves after his victory in the South Carolina primary. They saw in him a man who could rally Black Americans and suburban moderates who loathed Trump, but also win back White non-college voters who could identify with “working class Joe,” a man who could never resist mentioning his childhood in Scranton, Pa.
He seemed the right guy to face Trump—and Trump feared exactly that. The president was impeached because he tried to entice a foreign government to dish dirt against the one candidate he thought could beat him. About this, at least, Trump was right.
Biden will need all his coalition-building skills and gifts for outreach as he assumes the presidency in the midst of a pandemic, a severe economic downturn, a new revolution for racial justice and a dangerously warming planet.
Having run on a very progressive program, he will confront enormous headwinds if Republicans maintain their hold on the Senate by winning at least one of the two January runoffs for seats in Georgia.Biden has always prided himself on his ability to work with Republicans. But he faces a party far more ideologically rigid than the one he first encountered as a young senator in 1973. It’s an opposition that has made obstruction of Democratic initiatives both a habit and a formula for internal unity. It will be emboldened by its down-ballot successes this year.
Yet Biden will also take office as someone accustomed to being underestimated. He will soon turn 78 and has little to lose. Much of his program—whether to build infrastructure, expand health coverage, enhance child care, and raise the wages of the poor and the middle class—is broadly popular.
And, to risk Biden-like optimism, the urgency of containing the pandemic and restoring the economy may mean that even a share of Trump’s supporters might give him at least an initial benefit of the doubt.
In one of his final addresses before the election, Biden quoted a speech that Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote but never got to deliver in which FDR lifted up the need to “cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together.”
From his earliest campaign to his two failed quests for the presidency and through all those funerals and birthdays and friendly phone calls, Biden has made “the science of human relationships” his chosen field. This has earned him an opportunity Roosevelt would recognize: to heal a nation ailing in body and spirit by renewing its capacity for common missions and shared aspirations
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