You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Former Vice President Joe Biden takes a selfie with a supporter after a town hall meeting in Knoxville, Iowa.

A Man in Full

Joe Biden wants to be a normal president in a highly abnormal age.

Former Vice President Joe Biden takes a selfie with a supporter after a town hall meeting in Knoxville, Iowa.

Joe Biden has been through impeachment before.

Not the oversexed and overhyped Bill Clinton variety, but the real 1974 Richard Nixon smoking-gun version. And for Biden, these were moments that transcended partisanship and called for national unity.

Biden was in the Capitol cheering when Jerry Ford, in his first speech to Congress, broke with the divisiveness of the Nixon years and pledged to be president of all the people—including “women’s liberationists and male chauvinists.”

As the youngest senator, Biden must have been pleased when his comments after the Ford speech were featured in an Associated Press roundup of the tumultuous days following Nixon’s resignation. Biden had gushed to the AP, “I found myself applauding the new President even when I thought he was all wet about the economy. Sure, there will be fights, but they’ll be clean, honest fights without bitterness. No one is going to tap your phone or spy on your office just because they don’t agree with you.”

Forty-five years later—after more than three decades as U.S. senator from Delaware, two failed White House bids, and eight years as vice president—Biden is running for president to become the Jerry Ford of the twenty-first century. Even though Donald Trump can make Nixon seem like Pericles, and Mitch McConnell is devoid of any principle beyond partisanship, Biden still believes that as president he can bring back the era of “clean, honest fights.” You can imagine Biden saying, with the same sincere awkwardness that Ford did after taking the oath of office, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Biden’s ideology, of course, does not align with Ford’s Rotary Club Republicanism. And there is no chance that President Biden would start sporting “WIN” (Whip Inflation Now) buttons or reinstall nonagenarian Henry Kissinger as secretary of state.

Still, on the campaign trail, Biden can deliver extended glosses on the politics of bipartisan restoration. At a late November rally in Des Moines, Biden said, with uneven syntax, “Once the next president is elected ... they will have to put the country back together. They’re going to inherit a nation that’s divided and a world that’s in disarray. I think it’s going to take someone of proven ability to pull people together and do the hard work of getting legislation passed. I’ve done that. And I can do it again.”

While Biden never mentions Ford, the moment of national healing seems similar to Bruce Reed, the former chief of staff to the vice president who now serves as one of Biden’s closest advisers and traveling companions. Here’s how Reed summed up the relevant parallel when I pressed him on it: “Like Ford, Joe Biden served in Congress long before coming to the White House and has never forgotten which article of the Constitution comes first.”

But Ford was an accidental president, named by Nixon as his vice president under the Twenty-fifth Amendment after Spiro Agnew resigned for taking cash bribes that began when he was Baltimore County executive and continued while he was in the White House. Before Ford became president, he had never run in a constituency larger than his Grand Rapids House district. Even when he sought a full term as president in 1976, Ford almost lost the Republican nomination to the far more charismatic and ideological Ronald Reagan.

Biden, deprived of Ford’s power of White House incumbency, has to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on his own. And there have already been stumbles. Delaware Senator Chris Coons, an ardent Biden supporter, admitted in an interview, “During the first few months when he was the undeniable front-runner, the size of the stakes here made him cautious at times.”

In Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Biden faces challengers who appeal to the party’s left flank, much as Reagan beguiled conservatives in the 1970s. While no Democrat this cycle commands the stage like Reagan, Pete Buttigieg boasts his own form of charm. Then there are other possible pitfalls for Biden, from Mike Bloomberg’s billions to an Iowa breakthrough by a currently underrated candidate like Amy Klobuchar. And Biden has to defeat them all despite a Reaganesque problem—the age issue, since he would be 78 years old when and if he takes the oath of office in 2021.

Yet for all the raging ambition that had Biden dreaming of the White House during the Reagan era (and probably much earlier), his final bid for the presidency is powered, in part, by a sense of moral obligation. Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime Capitol Hill chief of staff, who was appointed to fill his unexpired Senate term in 2009, offers an insight about this last-hurrah campaign. Kaufman speculated that after Charlottesville, Biden said to himself, “Suppose I don’t run and Trump wins? What are my final years going to be like? This guy is going to do irreparable damage to the soul of the country. And I didn’t run because it’s going to be hard? No way.”

In 2013, while vice president, Biden made one of those small, empathetic gestures that have long been his hallmark. He came to New York to attend a private memorial service for the writer Richard Ben Cramer at Columbia Journalism School. Cramer’s crowning work was What It Takes, a majestic, 1,072-page biographical portrait of six men (including Biden) who sought the presidency in the 1988 campaign cycle.

The memorial service, which I attended, was invitation-only, and Biden never released a copy of his eulogy to the press. But I vividly remember Biden, fighting back tears, saying that Cramer “captured me, warts and all. And he still liked me.”

Biden in the center of the crowded 1988 Democratic primary field (left to right): Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, Bruce Babbitt, and Paul Simon
Steve Kagen/Life/Getty

I keep coming back to What It Takes because, even 27 years after it was published in 1992, it remains the gold standard for understanding the passion and pride, the stoicism and stubbornness, the ramblings and the resentments, the blarney and the ballyhoo that make Joe Biden a man in full.

At the core of What It Takes is the tale of Biden the Orator—the fledgling presidential candidate so desperate to succeed that he allowed aides to fill his speeches with borrowed lines from Bobby Kennedy and British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. And in the heat of his fledgling presidential run, Biden sometimes used those lines without proper credit.

The plagiarism scandal that drove him from the presidential race long before the Iowa caucuses is no longer relevant. Also outmoded is the unspoken assumption back then (which I shared as I wrote about the 1988 race for Time) that Biden was merely a mouthpiece for his slick consultants, particularly erratic pollster Pat Caddell, who helped elect Jimmy Carter, dabbled in Hollywood, and gave the world New Coke.

But for all the forensic attention given to Biden’s speeches during his abortive 1988 run, what endures is Cramer’s description of Biden the Candidate: “the abandon with which he stretched himself (and not just by exaggeration) to touch a thousand lives in a day ... the talent, extravagant effort, the generosity of spirit that made every event with Biden a festival of inclusion ... the death-defying-Evel-Knievel-eighty-miles-an-hour-over-twenty-five-buses leap he would make to get the connect.”

These days, Biden mostly forges that connection through unvarnished emotion rather than overheated rhetoric. At a small, early November outdoor event in Concord, New Hampshire, honoring his support by the firefighters’ union, Biden used his five-minute talk to review the role that firefighters have played during the public tragedies that have shaped his life, “When I first was elected to the Senate,” he said in a flat, uninflected voice, “there was a terrible car accident that killed my wife and daughter. A tractor trailer broadsided them Christmas shopping and my two boys were badly, badly injured.... They tell me it took three hours for ... my fire company to get them out and get them to the hospital to save them.” Then Biden explained how in the 1980s he had been rescued by firefighters in the middle of a blizzard and rushed to Walter Reed hospital for a 13-hour operation after suffering a brain aneurysm. Finally, Biden said, the local fire department saved the life of his wife, Jill, after a lightning strike filled their Delaware home with flames.

In Concord, in contrast to many of his campaign appearances, Biden didn’t even mention the death of his 46-year-old son Beau from brain cancer in 2015.

No matter how familiar you are with these stories, their emotional wallop is inescapable. They can be parsed in political and psychological terms. But what would also be telling is that, if he is elected, Biden’s worst day in the White House would be nowhere close to the worst day of his life. This hard-earned sense of perspective is something that Biden shares with only one other presidential candidate in recent years, former Vietnam POW John McCain.

A Biden speech rarely follows the traditional trajectory of political oratory designed to bring voters to their feet with rousing cheers. Covering Biden’s second presidential campaign in 2007 for Salon, I wrote, “There is a free-form quality to Biden’s stump speeches as arguments appear from nowhere, presumably because something occurred to the candidate, and then disappear from the repertoire for the rest of the day.”

It is this rambling-road history that makes me reluctant to blame Biden’s age for anything in his disjointed campaign, including cringe-worthy moments in the debates like promising to “keep punching” on violence against women. His stiff-necked sense of authenticity and his self-confidence in his salesman’s ability to close the deal make his every burst of oratory a daunting challenge to those who diagram sentences.

Biden these days is not a candidate who is in the thrall of handlers. The aide at a town meeting who says hopefully, “One more question,” knows that there will be four or five. But every time that Biden grabs a hand mic at a rally or walks onto a debate stage, his head is stuffed with a series of rules that he has internalized: Don’t talk too long. Don’t speak warmly of a segregationist senator from the 1970s. Don’t use show-your-age expressions like “record player.” And don’t tell jokes about your wife, Jill, (or any other woman) that used to get laughs at Democratic Party dinners in the 1990s.

No other presidential candidate in modern times has had to defend a Washington career that stretched over nearly a half-century. In the first Democratic debate this June, Kamala Harris lambasted Biden for his Senate votes against “forced busing” in the mid-1970s. Biden’s political caution back then was understandable (Delaware voted Republican in four of the five presidential elections between 1972 and 1988) and was probably the only reason he lasted 36 years in the Senate. These days, Biden is like an Army general with dangerously long supply lines who knows that he is vulnerable to attack in hundreds of places. 

In the early days of this campaign, Biden would boast about his man-of-the-people roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in these terms: “My friend Barack would make you think that I was a coal miner coming out of the mine with a lunch bucket in my hand. But I’m not. My dad was a white-collar salesman.”

The immediate fact-check (“But I’m not”) was there for a single reason—defensiveness over Neil Kinnock. In the line that Biden had plagiarized, he had boasted in 1987 of “ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours.”

These days on the campaign trail, Biden seeks to inoculate himself from criticism on everything from age to ideology by apologizing more often than a waiter in a four-star restaurant who has just knocked over a glass of red wine on a white suit.

About five minutes into a mid-November town meeting in Greenwood, South Carolina, Biden said ruefully, “There’s actually a point to this story.” Talking about rural housing a bit later, Biden said, “My problem is that I tell you too much, so shush me up.” Answering an education question, Biden apologized in advance, “I’m going to sound like a wonk.” Discussing his children (and airbrushing away any mention of his son Hunter’s well-paid misadventures in Ukraine), Biden veered dangerously close to anticipating senility: “I should have had one Republican kid. That way, when they put me in the home, I get a window with a view.”

This kind of Biden high-wire act inspires a certain morbid fascination, but it is not exactly a crowd-pleaser.

In 1973, Biden took the oath of office from the secretary of the Senate in the hospital room where his son Beau was recovering in traction from the auto accident that had killed Biden’s wife, Neilia, and daughter Amy. Standing by is Biden’s father-in-law, Robert Hunter.

Speaking to about 130 people at a late November town meeting in rural Knoxville, Iowa, 40 miles southeast of Des Moines, Biden gave an 11-minute stump speech without a single burst of applause until he finished. Then for the first 20 minutes of the question period, Biden spoke to the sound of no hands clapping. It was hard not to recall the plea of Jeb Bush—another thoroughbred hopeful in the crowded 2016 GOP field: Please clap. Amid all the many polling surprises, debate bumps, and unanticipated reversals of the 2020 Democratic campaign, there has been an unalterable truth: You never have to worry about finding parking at a Joe Biden event.

Not surprisingly, Biden’s supporters try to put the best possible spin on the lack of public enthusiasm surrounding his candidacy. Discussing the sparse crowd that the former vice president attracted in Concord on a sparkling Saturday morning in early November, Terry Shumaker (a prominent New Hampshire Biden backer and a former ambassador under Bill Clinton) said, “A lot of people I talk to say, ‘I don’t need to go to an event. I know who Joe is.’” In similar fashion, Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s communications director and deputy campaign manager, argued, “Voters like that they’re getting a real person rather than a prepackaged politician.”

An Iowa Biden supporter, Des Moines immigration attorney James Benzoni, offered a shrewd analysis of the candidate’s problems while we waited to hear the former vice president speak in Knoxville: “I’ve been door-knocking, and he’s not inspiring. He overthinks everything. You’ve got to trust yourself. And Joe isn’t doing that.” Then Benzoni volunteered a comparison that had already occurred to me: “Hillary and Al Gore both lost for the same reason: because they overthought things. They didn’t speak from the heart. Joe has a file cabinet up there in his head going a million miles a minute about what he should say.”

Maybe in a normal presidential nomination fight Biden’s problems (his age, his defensiveness, and his lack of appeal to left-wing crusaders) would be fatal. But in case you haven’t noticed, there is nothing normal about the 2020 campaign. Here is Biden, the loyal veep to the most popular figure in the Democratic Party, unable to fill a room without the artful arrangement of chairs and lectern. After the most divisive three years in American political history since Reconstruction, Biden is frequently mocked for invoking the household gods of Beltway bipartisanship.

And yet, after two failed presidential runs that never even got him to the New Hampshire primary, Biden is truly the candidate who persists. His mission may look daunting on paper. But Biden holds a key advantage as the campaign begins to move into the delegate-counting phase: a striking consistency of support in most regions and across most demographic groups, younger voters aside.

Even though statewide results are what the TV networks emphasize on primary nights, most Democratic convention delegates will be chosen by congressional districts. Elaine Kamarck, a longtime member of the DNC’s rules committee and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, points out that each congressional district is awarded a certain number of convention delegates (usually four or five) based on its prior Democratic vote. Because congressional districts with a heavy concentration of African American voters deliver such lopsided Democratic margins, they often have eight or nine delegates. 

As Biden himself might say, this calculus of primary support is getting a little wonky—but the math is important for understanding the contours of the coming nomination fight.

A candidate needs to collect at least 15 percent of the vote in a congressional district to win a delegate. An affluent suburban district might split its five votes: Warren two, Buttigieg two, and Biden one. But in a majority-minority district, Biden might be the only candidate hitting the 15 percent threshold. So, in such a scenario, he could walk off with all nine delegates.

It’s true that in a campaign as unsettled as this one, Biden’s overwhelming advantage among African American voters could erode with a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Or, hypothetically, Hunter Biden’s former $50,000-a-month seat on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma could cut into Biden’s appeal to Democrats whose top priority is defeating Trump.

So far, though, Trump’s war on the Bidens appears to be backfiring among Iowa Democrats.

University of Delaware political scientist David Redlawsk leads a team that has been surveying an unusually large sample of 1,380 would-be caucus-goers for an academic study that will not be published until after the 2020 campaign. In November, Redlawsk polled Iowa Democrats about Trump’s “unsubstantiated claims that Joe Biden and his son have had inappropriate dealings in Ukraine.”

The results (which Redlawsk shared with The New Republic) should gratify the Biden campaign. Eighty-one percent said that the drumbeat of charges from Trump and his GOP mouthpieces would have “no effect” on their caucus vote. But here’s the surprise: More Iowa Democrats (12 percent) said that the Trump attacks made them more likely to support Biden than those (8 percent) who said they were less likely. (The survey’s numbers add up to 101 percent because of rounding.)

National Democratic strategists, who are unaffiliated with any campaign, have been perplexed by Biden’s inability to capitalize on Trump’s obsession with trolling for dirt in Ukraine. Sure, Biden gets applause with throwaway lines like the one he used in Des Moines in late November: “Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee, that’s what I know.” But like so much about the underperforming Biden campaign, the message is muddled.

My emblematic Joe Biden story took place in Iowa in early July 2007. As the only reporter then traveling with Biden (something that was far from unusual in an election season dominated by Obama and Hillary Clinton), I had exhausted all the obvious questions by the time we got on a small plane for a quick hop partway across the state. So for my own curiosity I asked Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, why he thought that George W. Bush had invaded Iraq.

My question was not about how Biden justified his own 2002 vote to authorize Bush to go to war; the senator had already told me he had misjudged the sway that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld held over Bush. No, what I wanted to know was Biden’s theory on the roots of the greatest American foreign policy debacle since Vietnam.

I have sadly lost the tape of Biden’s answer, but I recall that it revolved around Cheney’s cockamamie theory that the only way to deter Al Qaeda was to convince the world that America was crazy enough to do anything. But the essence of Biden was that his answer covered the 20-minute plane flight, a 15-minute ride to his next event, and 10 minutes more in his van as he waved off impatient staffers. And even then, Biden had not yet finished his third point.

In 2007, Biden would claim during stump speeches, “I know almost all the world leaders by their first names.” With Trump in the White House, Biden makes the same case with even more urgency. “On day one,” he said in New London, New Hampshire, in early November, “the next president of the United States is going to have to meet and command the world stage. There is no time for on-the-job training.... I’ve met every major world leader in the last 45 years.” (To Biden’s additional credit, Boris Johnson appears to be the conspicuous exception.) 

Foreign policy has played about as a big a role in this year’s Democratic campaign as free silver. But no matter what you think of Biden’s credulous faith 17 years ago in the competence of the Bush administration on Iraq, it is hard to argue that anyone in the Democratic race comes close to matching his global experience. 

Unlike some of his Democratic rivals, Biden stresses that the United States only contributes 15 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases. His point is not to minimize our national responsibility, but to highlight that merely rejoining the Paris Accords will not be nearly enough. Part of the case for a Biden presidency rests on the belief that he is better equipped than his Democratic rivals to negotiate aggressive global action to slow climate change. As Stef Feldman, Biden’s campaign policy director, told me with a hint of exasperation in her voice, “Biden hasn’t received the attention he deserves as someone who can deliver international support on climate.”

The reason that such selling points get lost in this primary cycle is that the activist wing of the party is showing little patience for traditional measures of leadership mettle such as insider knowledge and experience. Biden will lose the nomination if the Democratic race becomes a bidding war rewarding the biggest health care plan, the largest proposal for a Green New Deal, the most ambitious wealth tax, and the most generous plan for free college. 

Biden on the 2008 campaign trail with Barack Obama in Toledo, Ohio
J.D. Pooley/Getty

Much like Obama and Bill Clinton, Biden has devoted his career to incremental change. This is not a candidate apt to morph into Bernie Sanders in the White House. “He knows who he is and what his core beliefs are,” Feldman said. “And that makes him so easy to staff in the policy process.”

Ronald Reagan always claimed to abide by a mythical Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” At a late November town meeting in Winterset, Iowa, near the covered bridges of Madison County, Biden tried a similar approach to justify his faltering turn-the-other-cheek debate performances. “I don’t want to be part of what Barack calls ... a circular firing squad,” he said. “I have not been as aggressive in the debates because pointing out the other person’s weaknesses just undermines the Democratic Party.”

But the next day in Knoxville, Biden couldn’t avoid displaying his frustration at the exaggerated claims of some of his rivals for the nomination, particularly the now-former-presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, whom he did not mention by name. “We almost don’t want to talk across the aisle,” Biden said. “We have Democrats saying, ‘I’m going to get elected and by executive order I’m going to do the following.’ C’mon. An executive order is basically a menu to abuse power in the presidency. We have three branches of government.” This, too, is a restorationist plea for a return to (hat tip: Warren G. Harding) normalcy in a national political scene disfigured by partisan rancor and evidence-averse appeals to ideological purity: After 36 years, you can take the man out of the Senate, but you can’t take the Senate out of the man.

Back in May, during his first 2020 campaign swing through New Hampshire, Biden evoked the Senate of yesteryear when members of both parties ate together, traveled together, talked together. “Folks, you’ve got to get to know the other team,” Biden said as his voice rose with passion. “You’ve got to get to know them personally. Barack always kids me ... ‘As Joe says, all politics is personal.’ Well it is.”

With congressional Republicans fearful to challenge Trump on anything, Biden’s sentiments can seem as anachronistic as, say, a 1960s lecture on the moral dangers of teenage petting. But Chris Coons, who inherited Biden’s Senate seat, argued that Biden has “had to endure the enormous frustration of Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism. He’s not naïve. He knows exactly how hard this is and how difficult this time is. But if there is anyone who can work across the aisle ... it’s Joe.”

When Biden first ran for president in 1987, he saw himself as an heir to Bobby Kennedy. Now, in what is almost certainly the last presidential race of his life (he has already reportedly signaled to campaign aides that, if elected, he would only serve out one term in office), Biden is no longer reaching for oratory that is not his own. He has endured too much suffering to be completely at peace. But there is undoubtedly a comfort in his I-did-it-my-way style that transcends clichés about “Middle-Class Joe” and a dotty uncle at the holiday dinner table.

Democrats, in the months ahead, should ask themselves whether America is ready to veer from a president who has trashed the Constitution to a leader who wants to overhaul the entire economy and health care system in a single four-year term. There is a pro-Biden case to inaugurate a long-overdue interval of national healing rather than a season of dramatic transformation.

Even if his restorationist campaign proves successful, Biden would be destined to be a transitional president. Sometimes, more than anything, a democracy needs a chance to exhale. There is no shame in competence, knowing how to govern, and a faith that compromise in a post-Trump world is possible. Accidental though he was, the record after four decades shows that Jerry Ford was a pretty good president.