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The Tragedy of Joe Biden’s Triumph

His political narrative was shaped by personal heartbreak, and it took a catastrophic administration to finally win him the White House. But voters have also deprived him of the means to save America.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

An unshakable feature of the last four years has been this heavy, crushing incredulity that Donald Trump managed to become president. A lot of things had to go right for him at once, and he was incapable of recreating that stroke of luck in 2020. But it might be even more remarkable that President-elect Joe Biden managed to do it, as well. After all, Trump was an extremely famous TV billionaire and proved over and over that his core of support, about 40 percent of registered voters, would wade through fire or ice for him. Trump is the sort of man that America rewards: born rich, a criminal and a fraud, vicious and cruel to most people in his life, willing to do anything to win, and completely oblivious to his own failures. People like that do well here. In hindsight, it feels inevitable that he became president. 

Biden, meanwhile, ended his 2008 campaign after finishing fifth in Iowa, having earlier called the man who would be president “clean and articulate.” He flunked out of running in 1988, too. Even as late as the first month of voting in this year’s primary, it seemed as if his campaign was dead; it was only the intervention of the Democratic establishment, following his win in South Carolina, that catapulted him to victory. He didn’t have a signature policy, or even much skill as a politician. His campaign speeches were rambling, more likely to involve a story about his teenage leg hair or San Francisco’s gay bathhouses than an accurate description of how his policy would help Americans pay for health care or college. In a debate, he answered a question about the legacy of slavery by rambling about record players and Venezuela. Whatever his skills were, he is no one’s picture of a polished, charismatic, or energetic politician. He’s certainly no Barack Obama.

How did Biden end up in a position to run for president in the first place, let alone winning the White House (as several networks declared on Saturday)? The more immediate answer is that his Republican opponent was Donald Trump.

Hunter Biden, the corrupt fail-son, and his laptop, full of evidence that would surely sink the Democratic nominee, were supposed to be the silver bullet to take down Joe Biden, rescuing the Trump campaign from its ineptitude and the inescapable evidence of unnecessary death that this presidency has left. But after months of windup, this October surprise landed with a flop, overshadowed by the ridiculous circumstances surrounding the laptop’s emergence, Rudy Giuliani’s penis, and a global pandemic. In the final weeks, the Trump campaign’s desperation to spin Hunter into a campaign cheat code landed the conservative media in an odd place: highlighting Joe Biden’s love for his son.

On October 16, the New York Post ran a story on the “raw and intimate” text messages between Joe and Hunter extracted from the laptop, showing Biden offering “fatherly comfort” to his son. If the paper or Giuliani thought this was a devastating attack against Biden, they missed the mark; the texts are undeniably affecting. “Good morning my beautiful son. I miss you and love you. Dad,” said Joe in one text from February 2019, sent at 6:57 a.m. “Only focus is recovery. Nothing else,” he said in another. Earlier texts that emerged just days before the election, reported by The Daily Caller, included Joe offering help to Hunter, whose emails and texts show his major struggles with money: “Do you need anything. I have cash. Love Dad.”

The first thing to note is that Donald Trump Jr. wishes he would get a 6:57 a.m. text from his dad telling him he loved him. It’s not clear exactly what these instances of patient fatherly affection for his screw-up son were supposed to demonstrate; perhaps that Biden loved his son so much that he must have helped him do corruption out of pure familial devotion. (One of the Daily Caller reporters on the story noted they had “found nothing on the drive indicating Joe Biden was cashing out from his son’s foreign business dealings,” which was supposed to be the Actual Problem here.) In fact, these outlets seem to have hit upon one of the few unimpeachable parts of Biden as a person: He loves his addict son, through all of his failures and wild exploits. 

Political commentators have made much of Biden’s tragic life and mournful air. Fintan O’Toole dubbed him the country’s “designated mourner” in January; a year earlier, Michael Kruse declared grief to be Biden’s “superpower.” His dedication to Hunter is an inextricable part of this tragedy. Hunter is the son left behind after Beau Biden, the Iraq veteran and promising politician in his own right, died of brain cancer in 2015; as children, the two brothers survived the car accident that killed their mother and their little sister, who was 13 months old. It is impossible to talk about Joe’s relationship with Hunter without this context: the devastated father and his little boys who were left behind, one of whom would be gone too young, while the other would careen from failure to failure, marred by being a crack addict and the lesser son. Stories abound about Biden’s sincere desire to commune with those going through illness or death, from those he works with to random voters he meets on the campaign trail. 

Naturally, Biden was not running to be America’s Mourner in Chief, and there’s no real evidence that his unique ability to translate sadness and loss played a part in his win. As much as Biden liked to talk about his mission to restore the soul of the nation, a deep understanding of grief isn’t the most qualifying characteristic of a good president. It’s equally impossible to think about Hunter’s addiction without thinking about how Biden’s career has impacted other addicts, other people’s sons and daughters. As Christian Lorentzen noted in August, the anti-drug crusade was pivotal to Biden’s earlier career; Biden “took part in the hysteria over drugs, and often tacked to the right” of Ronald Reagan on drug enforcement. Famously, he drafted the 1994 Crime Bill; in 1986, he wrote the legislation that gave us the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine and was “the lead anti-drug guy among the Democrats.” Years later, Biden said he made a mistake. Funny who gets to make mistakes and who doesn’t.

Nevertheless, Trump failed in his mad gambit to use Hunter Biden to torpedo his father’s ambitions. But this only explains how Trump failed, not how Biden won, albeit by a much more anxiety-inducing margin than many expected.  

As Lorentzen wrote, Biden “seems to have got into politics simply because he could: for the fuck of it, not out of any ethical commitment or bracing ambition.” He doesn’t have the sort of algorithmic drive of a Pete Buttigieg or the deep convictions of Bernie Sanders; he doesn’t seem to have been very good at (or interested in) accumulating power like Bill or Hillary Clinton. Despite his long career and familiarity with Washington’s Democratic establishment, he was unable to summon their assistance until they finally ran out of other options to stop Sanders. He was always one of the poorest guys in Congress, despite how easy it is for senators to cash out. He sits plainly outside easy stereotypes of corrupt or power-hungry politicians. 

O’Toole cites Richard Ben Cramer, who, in his book What It Takes, reported that Jill Biden was aghast at the idea of her husband running over and over again for the presidency. It was “her nightmare: that he’d run, come close, and then it would never stop.” Unlike real nightmares, we seem to have reached a happy ending for the Bidens: He won. This unlikely man, marked by tragedy, at age 77, has finally made it to the office he has been aiming at since before I was born. 

But in a final tragedy, it’s very possible his presidency is doomed from the start, thanks to the bloodbath for Democratic Senate candidates and the calamitous erosion of their majority in the House. 

Until Tuesday night, the unanswered question about Biden’s presidency was whether he would scale up his initially more moderate proposals to match the mammoth size of the problems that America faces, which are hardly limited to the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, this new crisis has only exacerbated America’s preexisting conditions: a range of economic inequities and larger injustices either inflamed or neglected by four years of Trumpism. It has been said that at one point, Biden had planned an “FDR-sized” presidency; as recently as Tuesday morning, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Anand Giridharadas that Biden’s first 100 days should look like Roosevelt’s presidency. At the same time, we also heard Biden wanted to put Republicans in his Cabinet, and his advisers began beating the death-drum of deficit hawkery months ago. It was infuriating to watch these two parallel ideas of a Biden presidency get pushed at the same time. Now it is all but confirmed that the latter option has won. The Republican hold on the Senate has dashed any hopes of getting a public option or an ambitious climate plan; already, Beltway types are spilling to Axios about how Biden must appoint centrists to his Cabinet. Surely, Mitch McConnell couldn’t call them socialists. 

It’s a fitting irony that what is shaping up to be a meager presidency required a great tragedy to bring it into being: The election was close enough that it is very conceivable Biden would have lost were it not for Covid-19. The man stalked by death has ascended to the highest office to guide us through a major mass death event, heading into the darkest winter of our lifetimes, no prospect of major relief on the horizon, and Mitch McConnell doing the Mr. Burns laugh to himself every night. Many more people are going to be miserable, stressed, exhausted, hungry, homeless, or dead because of this terrible outcome, and Biden will have to preside over this grim period without a Senate majority to mitigate the crisis with legislation and a 6–3 right-wing majority on the Supreme Court checking his efforts to use executive branch agencies to limit the devastation. That will leave his superpower of grief as the one thing over which Republicans don’t hold a veto. All we can hope for is that he will feel our pain.