Illustration © Tim McDonagh

Can Joe Biden save America?

FDR wrote the playbook the new president needs—and he’s been studying it closely
January 19, 2021

Biden saw Camelot before him on his election as one of the youngest ever senators in 1972, hoping to be the next JFK only nine years after the man himself had been shot. Joe had dashing good looks, a glamorous young wife, and three beautiful children.

Then days later a truck smashed into Neilia Biden’s Chevrolet as she was on her way to buy a Christmas tree. Neilia and baby Naomi were killed instantly; the two under-five boys, Beau and Hunter, seriously injured. Overnight, Joe became “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” In the decades ahead, his own near-death from a brain aneurysm and then—later on—Beau’s losing battle with brain cancer deepened the acquaintance.

The presidential dream, however, never expired during 36 years in the Senate, including two unsuccessful tilts at the highest office. But destiny seemed to lie in a court ruled by others, apparently culminating in a stint as vice president to Barack Obama.

Then came Donald Trump and Covid-19. The people chose Biden, the oldest, most battle-hardened knight of the Democratic court, to fell the grotesque, gargantuan monster laying waste to all about. The veteran struggled a little in mounting his steed, but rode out and did it. The creature writhed and lashed out violently to the last, but today is no more. Milton’s “happy realms of light” after “darkness visible.”

Yet amid the relief and euphoria, the reality is a land still beset by plague and locusts. The pandemic has become the worst peacetime crisis for America since the Great Depression. The people’s desperate yearning is for a leader who, like FDR, can bring the country out of deep recession and embattled pessimism. And unlikely as it would have once seemed, friends, and even foes too, are projecting this role on their new president. Indeed, he is thrusting it upon himself: Biden constantly invokes FDR as muse and guide.  

Fittingly, perhaps, Joe Biden Junior was born in 1942, in the years after the New Deal and Roosevelt’s struggles to dig the United States out of depression and lead the world from out of the dark shadow of authoritarianism. Joe Biden Senior moved from Scranton, Pennsylvania to the small port city of Wilmington in neighbouring Delaware in the 1950s, as prosperity was followed by excruciating downward mobility when his uncle’s wartime armaments business evaporated along with later ventures. There was enough money—just—to get young Joe to a Catholic private school and then to college, but the struggle was genuine.

Biden’s role model FDR was impulsive, gregarious, constantly dynamic, and managed to dominate the centre-ground while governing radically. The New Deal was a Keynesian revolt against unemployment and stagnation. FDR was experimental, often incoherent, sometimes outright contradictory, yet he always found a way to win in the face of crisis. A contemporary quipped that he had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament—by far the more important gift in transformative democratic politics. Biden may not have FDR’s charm and command, but he shares something of his temperament and instinct—and in a similar context. Crucially, to my mind, he is also one of the “Club of 30”: democratic leaders first elected to public office by that age, professional politicians in the true meaning of “professional,” deeply versed in the institutions of state from their early careers. FDR first got elected at 29, the same age as JFK; LBJ at 28; Clinton at 30. In Britain Churchill was elected to parliament at 25, Blair at 30.

Biden got elected to one of Delaware’s three county councils at the age of 27, then to the US Senate just two years later, in an extraordinary coup against a popular Republican incumbent. He could only take his seat because he attained the 30 years stipulated as a minimum in the US Constitution on a birthday (20th November) that fell between the election and the summoning of the new Congress in January 1973.

Only a handful of politicians who start young and endure for decades are skilled and lucky enough to reach the top. But those few who do become quintessentially public figures, with public lives and public families akin in some ways to royalty in their celebrity. They acquire a vital quality of latency—an ability to cut through to voters by being so long imprinted on the public mind—which makes them a constant point of reference, occasionally, as with Biden, able to stage a dramatic return after their careers appear finished.

Entering the limelight when barely adults and maturing in the public eye, their frailties become familiar, even endearing, and integral to their charisma—either that, or their flaws barely register because they don’t fit with the well-established public persona. (FDR’s polio, wheelchair and walking braces would have kept him out of any office, let alone the Oval Office, had he not started out long before they struck, enabling him to master infirmity and its media treatment within an established career). In Biden’s case, a penchant for plagiarising Neil Kinnock, Robert Kennedy and assorted poets sank his first presidential bid at 45, a third of a century ago. By his next, 20 years later in 2007, piracy and verbosity were merely harmless foibles, while his Rust Belt popularity and Washington deal-making record eventually made him Obama’s natural running mate.

Today, that very lightly reworked rendition of Kinnock—“Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?… the first Biden in a thousand generations…”—is a classic; and his quoting Lincoln’s “we shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth” for the hundredth time was uplifting rather than hackneyed when he denounced Trump and his rabble’s assault on Congress. As for RFK, the striking connection now is less borrowed words than a shared quest to unite black and white working-class voters.

While they pale besides the complaints against Trump and even Bill Clinton, there have been claims of questionable conduct towards women in the distant past, and in one case a (strongly contested) allegation of sexual assault. But whatever their truth, most Americans again assign them to a career stretching back to the mores of a different era. Biden’s latest biographer, the journalist Evan Osnos, goes for a title, American Dreamer, which is pure brand Biden. The most striking flaw that he highlights in his subject—he records Biden speaking for 55 of 64 minutes in a typical vice-presidential meeting—is one that the new President can live with: “If my Achilles heel has to be that I talked too much, not that I’m a womaniser or I’m dishonest or what-not, it’s fine.” FDR, after all, was an inveterate yarner.    

[su_pullquote]“Family tragedy is the story most Americans know about Biden, because it’s the story he tells about himself”[/su_pullquote]

At the heart of the Biden phenomenon, right from the age of 30, is a public mourning and grief that would be mawkish if they did not flow plausibly, apparently naturally, from being stricken in public life. Its centrepiece is the illness and death in 2015 of eldest son and political heir Beau, an Iraq veteran and attorney general of Delaware, while his father was vice president.

Beau was only 46, and with two young children, when his coffin lay in state in the Delaware State Capitol. President Obama gave the eulogy at the Wilmington obsequies. “Joe, you are my brother,” he said, embracing his deputy besides the flag-draped casket. There was even a message from the deathbed. “You’ve got to promise me, Dad, that no matter what happens you’re going to be all right,” the son told his father, as recorded in the patriarch’s bestselling book, Promise Me, Dad published soon after. “Beau was making me promise to stay engaged in the public life of the nation and the world,” he writes, in case the message were unclear.

Family tragedy is the story most Americans know of their new President, because it’s the story that he tells about himself. In an electric campaign moment in early 2020, an Iraq veteran turned anti-war campaigner asked him: “We are just wondering why we should vote for someone who voted for a war and enabled a war that killed thousands of our brothers and sisters and countless Iraqi civilians?” Biden gently interrupted: “So was my son, was in Iraq, for a year. Not that it matters, right? It matters a lot to me.” He stopped to talk to the man while leaving the hall. Everything about Trump was tacky by comparison. Even Fox News couldn’t seriously dent brand Biden while attacking his younger son Hunter’s (evidently questionable) Ukrainian business dealings. 

Religion is integral to brand Biden. He is the second Catholic president after JFK, with a characteristic twist—Joe wears Beau’s rosary around his wrist, calling it his connection with his lost son, and quotes Kierkegaard: “faith sees best in the dark.” Morbidity as charisma is a rare and strange thing. It has been Biden’s political shield and sword. Whether it continues to cut a swathe through his opponents depends, I suspect, on whether on taking office he appears from the start with the vigour of President Roosevelt before his final months—rather than as “Sleepy Joe” resembling, well, other men approaching 80. Trump identified the Achilles heel, he just couldn’t get to it. 

As with FDR, the strength of the new President’s administration will partly depend upon his team. Team Biden looks formidable, combining extraordinary longevity, loyalty, friendship and talent. Ron Klain, Biden’s 59-year-old White House chief of staff, was Biden’s adviser as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1980s before becoming vice presidential chief of staff to Al Gore and then to Biden himself. Ted Kaufman, the 81-year-old Biden-Harris transition chief, was one of the original volunteers of Joe’s first barnstorming 1972 Senate campaign, and not long afterwards his office chief. He eventually replaced his boss as Delaware senator when Biden became Vice President, and was thought to be keeping the seat warm for Beau. A string of sometimes-younger Biden diehards—Bruce Reed, Cathy Russell, Mark Gitenstein, there is a long list—have reassembled in the West Wing after intertwining with him for decades. Biographer Jules Witcover calls this coterie “his other family.”

As to the cabinet, the deeply experienced Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, is a throwback to Cordell Hull, the longest-ever holder of the post under FDR and “father of the United Nations.” Paris-educated Blinken, son of one US ambassador and nephew of another, was Biden’s perpetual adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the eighties, nineties and noughties. They travelled to Iraq together 10 times, and back and forth to central and eastern Europe as Biden agitated, rather brilliantly, for the expansion of Nato to the east, and for military intervention to halt Slobodan Miloševi’s atrocities in the Balkans. Blinken went on to become Obama’s Deputy Secretary of State under John Kerry—himself a longtime Senate buddy of Biden’s, now reincarnated as climate envoy.

Biden’s newly acquired talent is as impressive as his old: Vice President Kamala Harris; Transport Secretary “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg, the gay, energetic young Democrat; Attorney General Merrick Garland, Obama’s eminent Supreme Court pick, who was denied Senate confirmation by Mitch McConnell at his most partisan; and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve. The media has focused on “diversity,” and the team collectively certainly embodies that. But just as important, each one of these appointments reinforces Team Biden’s “tough moderate” and “competent” brand—especially Harris, a former California state prosecutor. So too Lloyd Austin, ear-catchingly announced by Biden as Defence Secretary as a black four-star general who served with Beau in Iraq. Team Biden is a match for FDR’s Harry Hopkins, Henry Morgenthau, Harold Ickes, Frances Perkins, and the “brains trust” which forged the New Deal. It is the sharpest contrast imaginable with Trump’s dysfunctional collection of advisers and cabinet members, whom he barely knew and fired on a whim. 

“Kamala Harris reinforces Team Biden's ‘tough moderate’ and ‘competent’ brand”

However capable this incoming governing machine may be, what are its chances of overcoming Washington’s entrenched paralysis? The Democrats have razor-thin control of both houses of Congress since the party’s nail-biting two-Senate seat triumph in the Georgia run-off of 5th January. It’s not a guarantee of success, but a precondition for it: Obama’s only big legislative successes, healthcare and the bold economic stimulus to counter the Great Recession, came in his first two years, when he presided over Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.

The arithmetic is tougher this time, turning on Harris’s tie-break vote in the Senate, but then thanks to Biden’s success in channelling the political, societal and economic emergency created by Trump and Covid-19, the discipline and cohesion of the Democratic Party appears strong. And after Trump’s rule descended into a doomed proto-fascist attempt to outright cancel the election, Republicans who had followed this morally bankrupt frontman for four long years are newly divided. To exploit this moment, Biden has to generate immediate momentum in the way FDR did in his celebrated “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” inaugural address—“to assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.”

Hindsight credits FDR with magical properties in political mobilisation, a world away from the sluggishness of Biden’s primary campaign last year. But on inauguration day, 4th March 1933, that’s not how Roosevelt seemed even to many Democrats. A scion of the Hudson Valley, he was widely written off as a privileged if affable dilettante, as is Biden, a 50-year Washington insider, in our own populist age. He was also treated as a prize chameleon. “If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs,” wrote the columnist HL Mencken, “he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard.”

Biden too is a pretty good chameleon. His party piece is to take Democrat and Republican positions on controversial issues and adopt them both. In the 1960s, he was against the Vietnam War—but against amnesty for draft dodgers. In the 1970s, he was against criminalising abortion—but against federal funding for it. He was against racial segregation—but against “busing” to create racially mixed schools. “I’ll be damned if I feel responsible for what happened 300 years ago,” was his response to Jesse Jackson’s call for positive discrimination in favour of African Americans, even as he lambasted Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz for being soft on apartheid, proclaiming: “I speak for the oppressed, whatever they may be.”

In the 1980s Biden was open to the possibility of installing the conservative judge Robert Bork on the Supreme Court—then against him. In the 1990s, he backed Clinton’s welfare—or rather, anti-welfare—reforms, and his most notable Senate legislative achievement was the 1994 Crime Bill which massively increased incarceration. Given the heavy racial slant of American criminal justice, liberal critics damned it as “the new Jim Crow.” Then in the 2000s he voted for George Bush’s war in Iraq—before becoming its fiercest critic. “I do not believe this is a rush to war,” he said in the October 2002 debate in the Senate, “I believe it is a march to peace and security,” a line right up there with FDR’s “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars”—delivered shortly before Pearl Harbor.

Not being stupid, Biden obviously can’t believe his own highfalutin defence of all this triangulation: that the 1994 Crime Act was incidental to America’s mass incarceration; that the Iraq War vote would strengthen the hands of UN weapons inspectors. In both these cases he didn’t just go along with the right; he led the right, bragging of his 1994 Crime Act that “the liberal wing of the Democratic Party” was now for “60 new death penalties, 70 enhanced penalties, 100,000 cops and 125,000 new state prison cells.”

But here’s the thing, just when you think Biden is for power at any price, he surprises. Sure enough, in June 2019, sensing a changing public mood and a Democratic Party sick of Clintonite cross-dressing, he switched against capital punishment, a fortnight after reversing his career-long opposition to federal funding for abortions. There are shades here of FDR’s slow, calculating but ultimately decisive shift from his youthful suspicion of organised labour towards signing and making his own the Wagner Act of 1935, which enshrined the legal right to strike.

“He was the most complicated human being I ever knew,” FDR’s confidant and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins said of him. “Out of this complicated nature there sprang much of the drive which brought achievement, much of the sympathy which made him like, and liked by, such oddly different types of people… and much of the apparent contradiction which so exasperated those associates.” The playwright Arthur Miller, another fan, held FDR to epitomise the truth that “in the politics of a democracy, the shortest distance between two points is often a crooked line.”

The same is true of Joe Biden. When he was a student at the University of Delaware in the early sixties, he was “a coat-and-tie guy and would do everything correctly” rather than a head-for-the-barricades type, recalls a friend. After a law degree at Syracuse University in upstate New York, he became a trial lawyer, first registering in Delaware as an independent, then voting for a Republican governor in 1968. His first wife Neilia was a Republican. Only in 1969, the year before winning his county council election against an entrenched Republican, did he register as a Democrat.

So Biden’s cross-dressing was a habit acquired early—in Delaware. Busing lit the blue touch-paper for the state’s white middle class: his first Senate initiative was to seek to ban federal funding for it, in tandem with Delaware’s Republican senator, William Roth. He held Roth close until his death in 2003, delivering the eulogy at his funeral. Without resisting busing, he wouldn’t have got elected by a hair’s breadth in the Nixon landslide year of 1972, nor in all likelihood been re-elected in the tricky 1978 Carter midterms.After that he became a fully established Delaware fixture. His record is, however, less compromising than Roosevelt’s accommodation with segregationist Southern legislators.

“With a career built on watching rather than running things, Biden is the most experienced novice ever to become president”

Biden later held a long line of nationally prominent Republicans close. He spoke at the funeral of John McCain, Obama’s opponent in 2008, (“My name’s Joe Biden, I’m a Democrat and I loved John McCain”). By such idiosyncratic centrism and bonding, Biden has made himself—without wealth or Ivy League connections—the 46th President of the United States. Remarkably, he has done so anchored in tiny Delaware, without any power base to rival FDR’s New York or Reagan’s California. The state has less than half the population of Houston, and is known mainly for gaping tax loopholes and a few beautiful beaches, midway between Washington and New York. And Biden has never even run Delaware—nor for that matter anything much, besides two Congressional committees.

Here there is a stark contrast with Roosevelt, who was assistant secretary of the Navy throughout the First World War and later governor of America’s then-most-populous state before he got to the White House. For all Biden’s prominence as Vice President, the Vice President decides nothing. Mostly, his career has been about watching and commenting on people running things. Biden is the most experienced novice ever to take the helm of the American state.

There are nonetheless good reasons for optimism. First, Biden never abstains or goes AWOL. He is always a man in what FDR’s cousin Teddy called the “arena,” “struggling valiantly”; and he has shown himself capable of leading decisively to the left at key moments. The felling of Trump was not a one-off. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1980s, while he initially indulged ultra-conservative Bork, who had been an ally against busing in the Nixon years, Biden moved against him ruthlessly as Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee the moment he grasped the political possibility and necessity.  “I didn’t want,” he said, “to be a little asterisk in history.” It was the Gipper’s biggest reverse.

Second, like FDR Biden is a politician of majorities, not minorities. However honourable, minorities in political institutions always lose, at least in the short term in which presidents deal. The challenge is to assemble majorities behind your own ideas, not just bend to others. In his determination to work from within the biggest political pack, Biden also has much in common with Lyndon Johnson, as well as the great British trade unionist and politician, Ernest Bevin. Neither of these 20th-century titans ever knowingly joined minorities while clambering up their institutions of power. Bevin organised a General Strike he deplored in 1926 in order to keep in the cockpit: two decades later, he was at the pinnacle of the British state building a welfare state. Though biographer Robert Caro calls him “Master of the Senate” in the 1950s, Johnson was in reality more servant than master, cosseting many of the same racists that Biden would later cultivate in the same chamber. LBJ’s genuine mastery was as President after JFK’s assassination, seizing the moment and two decades of Congressional skill to enact the wave of Great Society civil and welfare rights legislation that took FDR’s legacy to a new level. This is Biden’s moment to do the same. “Where’s the deal space?” a Biden refrain, is pure LBJ.

For like FDR and LBJ, whatever his other tergiversations, Biden is progressive on the core New Deal agenda of jobs and fair shares for America’s working and middle classes. “Amtrak Joe” isn’t just an act, although it is that too. He has always been on good terms with the Democratic party’s liberal wing and black communities—recall that it was South Carolina’s African-Americans who saved his candidacy last year, spurning Bernie Sanders and turning out for a man they trusted to stand by them. Tellingly, Sanders prefers Biden to Hillary Clinton, relating how Biden had told him: “I want to be the most progressive president since FDR.”

In his 1932 Oglethorpe speech, at the depth of the Depression, FDR declared prophetically: “The country needs, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. Take a method and try it. If it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Biden’s cast of mind is similar. 

“Obama, proposing Biden as his running mate, said ‘he has stared down dictators’”

FDR coined the concept of a first “hundred days.” He called Congress into special session and kept it there for three months. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civil Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Tennessee Valley Authority, Emergency Banking Act, Farm Credit Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, Home Owners Loan Act, and Emergency Railroad Transportation Act were all launched. Fifteen major bills were enacted by Congress, plus a cascade of executive orders. Oh, and Prohibition was repealed and America came off the gold standard.

The best advice I could give Biden is to set a plan as bold and urgent as this. In my experience of government, successful “R&D” generally stands for “rob and duplicate.” Where a good idea exists and works well in some other place and setting, don’t dither, but get on and implement it. Success depends, of course, on you copying the right models, and adapting them as necessary—but not more than necessary. The imperative for action and momentum is now, in the immediate afterglow of victory, and amid the triple crises—of public health, jobs and of decent government and leadership—that Trump has bequeathed.

Biden must resist the temptation to start cautiously with micro-measures intended “to point the way” to bigger reforms, which then inevitably won’t happen. There is no shortage of bold, potentially “sellable” measures for Biden’s first 100 days. Those $2,000 Covid-19 cheques and a comprehensive stimulus package. A $15 minimum wage. A Green New Deal, on the back of restoring the Paris climate accords. A big infrastructure plan. Mass volunteering and public works programmes focused on America’s 11m unemployed. Reversing Trump’s tax cuts for the super-rich and corporations. Reversing Trump’s inhumane immigration measures and granting citizenship to an estimated 11m undocumented migrants. A “public health option” to expand Obamacare. Slashing drug prices. Boosting tertiary education, especially in poorer and minority communities, and a fair settlement to reduce student debt. A new Voting and Civil Rights Act. Reversing Biden’s own mandatory minimum prison terms, which it’s now high time to consign to a frenzied past. Media trails suggest several things on this long list are already in the works.

Barack Obama issued 147 executive orders in his first term; Bill Clinton 200. Why not 100 orders in Biden’s first 100 days? In the world of 2020—to borrow one of Biden’s favourite lines from fellow-Irishman Yeats—everything has “changed, changed utterly,” while “a terrible beauty is born.” The veteran who has defied expectations to become president now needs to defy his doubters by championing another New Deal. 

Like FDR, Joe is a happy warrior, which is part of his appeal. But there is steel and backbone. Obama, proposing him as his running mate, said “he has stared down dictators.” This is literally true. The most impressive story I know of Biden is of his mission to Serbia in 1993 to try and halt Slobodan Miloševi’s genocide in Bosnia. At one point, Miloševi asked: “What do you think of me?” Biden jumped up, jabbed his finger at the tyrant, and yelled: “I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one.”