President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks from the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware Credit: Biden Transition/PA Images

Can Joe Biden unify America?

A new biography describes a likeable if flawed figure
December 9, 2020

It seems that American democracy has survived (just). Joe Biden has been a public figure for almost 50 years. Having first been elected to the US Senate in 1972, and served as Obama’s Vice President for two terms, he is set to become the 46th US President on 20th January. Evan Osnos’s biography of Biden provides an informative, readable account in less than 200 pages—much of it distilled from Osnos’s previous New Yorker pieces, and based on interviews with many key figures, including Biden himself and Barack Obama.

Biden has been described by a friend as both the unluckiest and the luckiest person he knew. Just after Biden was elected to the Senate, his first wife and baby daughter were killed in a car crash; more recently his eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden himself suffered a near fatal brain aneurysm in 1988 (a priest was called to deliver the last rites). Yet Biden has also reached the very highest political offices, while sporting a tendency for arrogance, blunders and long-windedness (in the words of a former British official: “He’s a bit like a spigot that you can turn on and can’t turn off.”)

Past highs included his 1994 efforts to pass the Violence Against Women Act; and leading a successful battle against Robert Bork, a conservative Supreme Court nominee. The lows included voting to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act (the repeal of which partially facilitated the 2008 financial crisis); his role in drafting the 1994 Crime Bill, which contributed to mass incarceration; and his handling, when Senate Judiciary Chair, of Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Osnos portrays Biden as a likeable, sympathetic figure, who has overcome tragedy and built a career on seeking consensus—a timely President to take control in a divided, pandemic-ridden America. However, Osnos also recounts how Biden learned from Trump’s election that you can’t ever truly defeat hate: “It only hides… and the words of a president, even a lousy president, matter.”

How can Biden square this with his desire, in Osnos’s words, to “unify the nation” with “a language of healing”?

Joe Biden: American Dreamer by Evan Osnos (Bloomsbury, £18.99)