Maybe Not Your Average Joe
It took me a while to figure out what to write for this week’s Sunday essay. To be sure, there was no shortage of worthy topics clamoring for attention. And as I sorted through them, I felt confident there was one topic that would be crossed off the list —President Biden’s address to Congress. For starters, I had already written a long piece that was sent out to all of you on the night of the speech. What more was there to say? Furthermore, by the end of the week, you’d be hard pressed to find coverage of the event anywhere near the top of the headlines. It is, as the saying goes, “old news.”
And yet the more the days passed, the more I found myself thinking about Wednesday night. It wasn’t so much recollecting memorable lines, specific proposals, or even the general topics covered, although there was plenty of note in all those categories. What gnawed at me was something less tangible, a feeling of some bigger whole that was more than the sum of its parts. As I tried to give my thoughts a more concrete form, I realized it was Joe Biden himself that struck me, the man up there at the podium making a forceful case for one of the most transformational agendas any President has made in my lifetime. And I have seen a lot of presidents and a lot of addresses to Congress.
We are living through a time that is unprecedented in more ways than we can fully fathom. It is human nature to focus on the extremes, the dangers lurking on the horizons of our mental vision. The pandemic naturally looms large, and so does the January 6 insurrection, with all that it reflects about the very real threats to our democratic order. We are still trying to assess the damage wrought by the previous administration and its twice-impeached leader. The news on climate change grows increasingly dire. And our fitful confrontations with racial injustice are powered by deep social, economic, and political currents that stretch back to before the founding of our nation. There is so much that we need to rebuild and rethink.
With all that is going on in our minds, our society, and our body politic, with the deep shadows of corruption, cruelty, and incompetence still being cast by the previous administration, it can sometimes be easy to lose President Biden in his own narrative. To be sure, just being president means you will be mentioned in many leading news reports, your movements noted, your words parsed. And that is certainly true for Biden as well. But the presidency has its own wattage and most who inhabit the role seek, in their particular manner, to turn up the spotlight on their own presence and accomplishments. With Biden I get the impression that he is perfectly happy if the presidential spotlight also includes a dimmer.
I am not saying that the speech itself was unimpressive. It was a fine feat of oratory, delivered in an effective tone of approachability and common sense. It was full of big ideas, expressed with passion and heart. But when it came to highlighting what Biden has already accomplished, or the scale and impact of his jaw-dropping legislative and administrative proposals, the president and his message crafters are consciously downplaying both their achievements and their ambitions. Make no mistake, if Biden gets even half of what he is seeking he would be one of this country’s truly transformational leaders. But Biden knows that big change provokes backlash and unease. He saw that firsthand watching the response to the first Black president. What if you wrap up a revolution, however, in the rhetoric of a return to basic American values? Biden seems to be betting that this approach can perhaps get a lot more done than anyone would have expected. Thus far, that bet seems to be paying off.
The man who spoke on Wednesday is a man of fierce ambition. His long political career and previous runs for the presidency prove that. However he has also become a man of age and experience in a culture that often prizes youth and potential. Many others have noted that the Biden we are seeing as president differs from the younger version of the man. He was known over his career for being long-winded and sometimes a bit of a loose cannon in his public proclamations. But Biden as president has been disciplined and seems to be listening as much as he is talking.
We live in an age of “celebrity,” a word broadly and unevenly defined and sometimes even devoid of any clear ties to significant accomplishment. Both of our previous presidents were celebrities, although ones of diametrically different embodiments of term. Say what you may wish about each of those men, but neither of them would be construed as boring. Biden, on the other hand, seems to be wielding “boring” as a potent political tool. He and his administration are busy at work. The output, from the White House to throughout the federal agencies, is focused, integrated, and once again hugely ambitious. Yet the marking of this output to the press and public is done in ways that highlight the substance and seek to downplay the flash.
It wasn’t only the substance of what Biden is trying to accomplish that kept me thinking long after Wednesday night. It was also the journey of the man himself. His personal narrative, replete with multiple tragedies, is well known and doesn’t need recounting. But the political trek that led to the stage he now occupies does not get enough note even though it is shaping his governance. There was a time when Biden was a young man on the move. Those years are long gone.
Even twelve years ago, when he was chosen by Barack Obama to be his running mate, Biden was seen as a safe option. He was a longtime Washington insider with a respected record on foreign affairs and military issues, two places where the young Obama seemed to be weak in experience.
This is what the New York Times reported on the day of the decision:
“It reflected a critical strategic choice by Mr. Obama: To go with a running mate who could reassure voters about gaps in his résumé, rather than to pick someone who could deliver a state or reinforce Mr. Obama’s message of change.”
Here we can see the equation —“reassure voters” versus “message of change.” And it worked. Throughout the Obama administration, Biden took on the role of a lovable old uncle. He never overshadowed Obama, but then again who could have? When 2016 rolled around, no one really thought he was the heir apparent. And he decided not to run. He was considered pretty old at the time. We all know what happened next.
With how the last five years have played out, it may be hard to remember Biden’s own journey through that time. He wasn’t one of the louder or most quotable voices. Many other political leaders dominated the spotlight. And when the election season started heating up for 2020, it took Biden a while to figure out whether and how he would run. He stumbled badly in the early primaries and many thought his political career, which already had seemed to end once before, was finally over. It was South Carolina specifically, and the pragmatism and insight of Black voters more generally, that rescued Biden as he suddenly and improbably roared to the nomination, and then the presidency.
As Biden assumed the office, no one knew quite what to expect. Part of that was the unpredictability of the times, particularly the impact of the pandemic. But it was also the sense that Biden had long projected the image of a centrist in the middle of his party’s political spectrum. Would that still be true when he was leading the show? And if so, where did that center lie? Someone who has been in elected office for as long as he has is bound to have drifted some in his beliefs. Where would he moor himself now?
Wednesday night was an exclamation point on what we have seen since January. Biden means business across an expanse of issues. He is weaving a narrative where dramatic action on racial justice, economic inequality, education, immigration, infrastructure, the social safety net and climate change are all interconnected and, as he would like to argue it, self-evident common sense. Here I want to return to that calculation the New York Times laid out when Biden became Obama’s running mate: “reassure voters” versus “message of change.” The Biden of 2020 and 2021 has made the calculation that if you reassure voters you could be an agent of change. And not just modest change. But epochal change.
To lay all this out is not to endorse all of the president’s approaches or to predict his ultimate success in achieving his goals. We can all see the structural and political impediments that are arrayed against him. But as we try to assess the probability of his success, let us think back to Wednesday night. After the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, how likely was it that Biden would be the one addressing the nation? After all that we have seen of him over the course of his career, who would have predicted the boldness of his initiatives?
Many hoped that Biden would be a breath of fresh air after what we had experienced during the previous administration. He was someone who could right our ship of state, return some sanity to our political discourse, and start putting back the guardrails to our democracy. He was a safe choice, maybe for many a hopeful choice. Some of all of that was on display Wednesday night. But so was a president channeling an ambition to reshape the destiny of this country that one found in presidents like Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan. Biden was saying, in his own understated way, that a new definition of the American experiment can and should begin now.
It is, in a phrase, a remarkable journey. And it’s a journey that the chief protagonist clearly is determined to continue. His speech, what was said and left unsaid, made that abundantly clear. Now we are all left to wonder whether he will be granted enough time and help to turn his understated vision into reality.
I can’t stop thinking about it. So I felt I should share my thoughts with you and ask, what do you think?
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