Joe Biden Is Not Ready to Admit, Even to Himself, How Far Ahead He Is

At Thursday’s town hall, candidate Biden continued doing a fine job keeping his head down. A much harder job awaits.

Biden, seated in a white chair on a blue carpeted stage, looks up and to his right.
Joe Biden at an ABC News town hall in Philadelphia on Thursday. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Like Donald Trump, Joe Biden conducted a TV town hall Thursday night. Unlike Donald Trump, Biden did not cover such subjects as whom he owes hundreds of millions of dollars to, whether he can remember if he took a coronavirus test before the last debate, and if there is a cannibal pedophilia cult operating at the highest levels of government and entertainment. Instead, it was about normal politics stuff. And the question tens of millions of Americans who are desperate for Biden to seal the deal and replace Trump in the Oval Office are likely asking is: How did he do? Are we getting closer to normal being normal again?

Well, he did fine. Your correspondent would wager that none of his answers will end up damaging his performance in the election. Perhaps the biggest question voters have about Biden is whether he is too old for the presidency, and while he did look old, because he is old, he also looked engaged and conversant with the issues his questioners brought up. Aside from forgetting the phrase green room, his brain worked fine.

He did, however, seem to be putting a ceiling on himself. His initial answers included digressive, familiar talking points about why Trump has done a bad job as president, even when the task at hand was to sketch out what a future Biden presidency would look like. The first questioner of the night asked him to describe, in detail, what he would do to mitigate the pandemic that Trump has helped create. Biden did have an answer—a national mask standard, invoking the Defense Production Act, testing and tracing, funding for schools and businesses so they can open safely—but he prefaced it with a paragraph-long recap of everything Trump had failed to do in January and February. A sound response to a question about taxes and the economy included an aside about his frustration at the way Trump, during the negotiation of his own tax bill, handled the corporate income tax rate. The “injecting bleach” thing came up. Biden, understandably, cannot quite seem to wrap his head around the unprecedented nature of this election; there is perhaps no candidate in American history who has less needed to make the case against his opponent, or to focus voters’ attention on particular unflattering aspects of his opponent’s record.

In other, less Trump-centric responses, the Democratic nominee seemed to be chased by the ghosts of the Democratic primary. A young man asked Biden why Black voters should vote affirmatively for him rather than just against Trump; Biden anxiously tried to cram everything he’s ever learned about the racial wealth gap into his answer, which lasted 3½ minutes and involved nearly a dozen facts and figures. Here’s an indicative sample: “What President Obama and I did, we had a program where we took a billion, $500 million, and we invested it in all the SBAs around the country, in the state SBAs, small-business associations, and that generated—$30 billion came off the sideline, because if you have a guarantee of $200,000 for your new startup enterprise, young entrepreneur, you’re going to be able to attract—if it’s government money, it’s a guarantee—you’ll be able to attract another $100,000. It generated $30 billion. Well, I’m changing that program—and I’ll get this done without much trouble, I believe, in the Congress, from $1.5 billion to $30 billion.”

Biden’s answers on climate change and criminal justice were similarly frantic. A progressive-minded voter or activist could find appealing concepts and phrases in them, if they cared to look, but they lacked the clarity, the ease of conviction and purpose, that the former vice president evokes in his better moments. He did not seem entirely ready to be the kind of leader on these issues that their urgency will require.

Biden did deliver some of those “better moments” Thursday night too, though—and, in timing that was opportune for his campaign, he did it during the 9–9:30 p.m. segment of the town hall that took place after Trump’s hourlong event on NBC had ended, with (presumably) millions of viewers switching over to ABC to check on the Democratic challenger. This was in my estimation the most striking exchange of the night:

Stephanopoulos: If you lose, what will that say to you about where America is today?

Biden: Well, it could say I’m a lousy candidate and I didn’t do a good job. But I think, I hope [pause] that [pause] it doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethnically, and religiously at odds with one another as it appears the president wants us to be. Usually, the president, in my view, with all due respect, has been divide and conquer. The way he does better if he splits us, if there’s division. And I think people need hope. I think—look, George, I’ve never been more optimistic about the prospects for this country than I am today, and I really mean that. I think people are ready, they understand what’s at stake. And it’s not about Democrat or Republican. If I get elected, you know, I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I’m going to be an American president. I’m going to take care of those who voted against me as well as those who voted for me, for real. That’s what presidents do.  We have to heal this nation, because we have the greatest opportunity of any country in the world to own the 21st century, and we can’t do it divided.

Biden began with a moment of honest self-deprecation and doubt, then came to a stop as he contemplated the unexpectedly incisive question, before moving on to a succinct, affirmative repudiation of the guiding spirit of Trumpism: “I’m going to take care of those who voted against me as well as those who voted for me.” Four or five years ago, you might have described some of the inspirational phrases he used in his answer as slices of 100 percent pure American political cheese. But in these times, who isn’t a little hungry for that kind of thing?