Politics

Joe Biden’s Chance at Greatness

The oldest president has an opportunity to secure the nation’s future.

Biden, wearing a black mask, salutes with a gloved hand
Joe Biden at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Tuesday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Once again, still, before we can consider Joe Biden, we have to talk about Donald Trump. When Trump exits office on Wednesday, he will be under impeachment, again. He leaves behind a country in worse shape than when he inherited it, both materially and spiritually. As the climax to his disgrace, Trump—after nearly four years of governance by roiling chaos, vindictiveness, and neglect—abandoned his post altogether and sent other people to attack the constitutional process, on behalf of a lie. Somewhere in the United States, right around when Air Force One drops Trump off at Mar-a-Lago Wednesday morning, the 400,000th American who succumbed to the coronavirus will be checked into the morgue. President Donald Trump was as bad as “President Donald Trump” sounded for most of his term, and at the end, worse.

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Into the vacancy, now, steps the ever-underestimated Biden.

Biden’s victory was an afterthought to Trump’s defeat, and his presidential transition has been an afterthought to Trump’s denial of defeat. It goes back further. When he announced his candidacy in June 2019, his chances of winning the Democratic primary earned less attention than his chances of losing, either because of his age, his mouth, his baggage, or his history of flaming out in presidential runs. When Biden took the nomination—convincingly, quickly—the narrative was less that he had won it than that he served as a safe harbor for those Democrats wary of Bernie Sanders. Replace “Bernie Sanders” with “Donald Trump,” and you have the popular remembrance of the general election. Buried under all the caveats and complications is a straightforward, impressive story: Joe Biden defeated the largest presidential primary field in history to take a major party’s nomination, and then defeated an incumbent president for the first time in 28 years.

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And buried under the weight of the historically bad developments that have accumulated over the last year is another straightforward, yet entirely undersold, possibility: Joe Biden has the opportunity to be one of the greats.

Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, as he well knows. That’s not all a bad thing. He doesn’t enter office with the sky-high expectations with which Obama entered in 2009, expectations that he could not possibly meet. The country doesn’t expect Biden to heal all that divides us. It expects very little, really.

“When Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. takes the oath to become the country’s 46th president on Wednesday, he will face an increasingly polarized, pessimistic and pained nation,” NBC News wrote on Tuesday, summarizing the grim findings of its most recent survey. The poll found that “73 percent of voters say the country is on the wrong track, compared with 21 percent who say it’s headed in the right direction.” And by a 53-to-44 percent margin, voters were “mainly worried and pessimistic about the nation’s future rather than hopeful and optimistic.”

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Biden’s path to a successful presidency, though, is more linear than Obama’s was. The 44th president had to resuscitate the economy from a deep recession prompted by a global financial crisis and a crippling cycle of deleveraging. In doing so, he had to rely on a group of advisers, and partner with a Democratic Congress, that was frustratingly timid about spending, against a backdrop of opportunistic Republicans screeching about the debt or looming inflation.

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Biden will face that same backdrop of opposition, but the early signs from the new Democratic Congress and his team are that they’ve learned the lessons of the previous Democratic administration. Biden has acknowledged that the first part of his proposed rescue package won’t be cheap—$1.9 trillion, to be exact—but that it must be done. More conservative members of the Democratic Party, like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, might quibble with some of Biden’s priorities. But they’re not quibbling with the idea of getting multitrillion-dollar, deficit-financed pallets of cash out the door.

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And then there’s the issue of tackling the root-cause problem that requires so much relief to go out in the first place. Obama had to prop up, restore, and re-regulate a global financial system that had imploded. Delicate, complex, politically treacherous stuff. Biden has to put shots in arms. I don’t mean to trivialize the difficulty of this, especially as the process of putting shots in arms has been off to a sluggish start. But it’s a goal that can be measured by tracking one number on a scoreboard. That has the ability to focus an administration’s mind on seeing it through.

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This is not getting Tim Geithner to get Angela Merkel to get the European Central Bank to not let Greece collapse so the European Union doesn’t collapse so the United States doesn’t collapse. This is taking now-existing, effective vaccines and getting them into as many people as possible, as fast as possible, to make the most pressing problem in the country disappear. If you can spend the money to keep people afloat while putting enough shots in arms to make the most pressing problem in the country disappear, priming the economy for liftoff when it does, you can be a successful, popular president.

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But what about a great one?

The pandemic may be the most immediate policy problem right now. But the biggest problem is the accelerating breakdown of the country. Decadeslong divisions have now slipped into violence, and that violence has breached the United States Capitol. Worse yet, the violence is nominally based on things that aren’t even real, like a stolen election, or a theory that Joe Biden is the ringmaster of an elite pedophile ring. There are 25,000 troops bivouacked in Washington to keep the peace during inauguration.

Joe Biden is not going to “unify the country” or “erase our divisions.” No one ever has. And at least one-quarter of the country, no matter what he does or doesn’t achieve, will keep believing he is a pedophile communist agent of China. Among those who aren’t completely lost, though, a more achievable goal would be to recenter those divisions on things that exist in our dimension.

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I’ve been reading statements from Republican members of Congress the last few days, for instance, that hammer Biden over his economic plan, and specifically his goal to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. These statements come as a relief. I know that Republicans hate the idea of a $15 minimum wage. I would never expect any of them to vote for it. If Democrats can’t get it through Congress, they can run against GOP opposition in the midterms. It would be a fierce campaign. But it would be about something real.

Normalcy went out the window with Trump, as the breadth and depth of the disasters he unleashed made it clear that the country couldn’t just vote him out and reset things to the way they had been in 2016. But the Biden presidency offers a chance to bring back a different kind of normal: one in which the government is engaged in the material business of governing, rather than pursuing either florid right-wing fantasia or timid liberal stagnation. Checks, enhanced unemployment insurance, shots in arms, student debt cancellation, a living wage, a massive, green infrastructure bill—these are all tangible, deliverable items to make lives better, and the recipients will know which party delivered them.

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Biden was not one of my first four or five choices for the Democratic nomination at the time. With each passing day, I’m more relieved that he won it. He wasn’t the only candidate with administrative or legislative experience in a time of crisis, though he had the most. What he had, though, was the highest capacity for trust and the broadest reservoir of goodwill. It may be years until we fully appreciate the depths to which Trump brought us, or how close the country came to falling apart. If we remember the Trump presidency as the low point in our civic collapse, then Biden will forever earn the recognition that eluded him in real time.

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