In January 1973, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., a 30-year-old county councilman who won an upset election by just over 3,000 votes, was sworn in as one of the youngest senators in the nation’s history. Today, at 78, he will take office as our oldest elected president. The 48 years Biden has spent in national politics are often referred to as years spent in “public service” to this country. But not even our best politicians of long tenure can claim to have served the country as consistently well as they might have in retrospect. By his own admission, Biden has spent significant portions of his career on the wrong side of issues ranging from criminal justice to foreign policy.
The substantive case against him as a political figure has been made repeatedly and at length over the last two years; the response to many of these criticisms has been that Biden is a different man today than he once was. But the better part of his career has been marked by one damning and instructive constant: Despite his failures in judgment and policymaking and through years of sweeping social and political change, Joe Biden’s preferred solution to the problems facing the American people has always been Joe Biden. And in his third run for the presidency, evidently the charm, he finally got a majority of the American electorate to agree with him.
The job Biden’s been angling for all these years is a terrible one in the best of times. And these, to put it mildly, are not the best of times. By the time Biden lays his hand on the inaugural Bible, the coronavirus pandemic will have killed over 400,000 Americans. His first major legislative push will be for a nearly $2 trillion relief package aimed at keeping the economy above water and reshaping the federal government’s public health response. Everyone in Democratic and progressive politics agrees that his main project afterward will be “rebuilding.” What the word actually means is an open question. As the pandemic worsened and November drew closer, Biden and his surrogates took to insisting, after a primary campaign defined by a promise to govern from the center, that he would instead pursue “an FDR-size presidency.” Democratic control of Congress will give him the power to make good on that commitment if the party’s moderates eliminate the Senate filibuster. Biden has yet to push for this, in part because the move conflicts with a task he has suggested is even more important: healing our political divide.
This cannot be done, and Biden probably knows it. But there’s a chance he, like many Americans, has been fooled by the relative peace and concord of the past few decades into believing peace and concord have been the American norm—a stable state we might return to if the right leaders say the right things. This isn’t so. Our history as a country has been bloody and fractious. It is violence and division that have been the norm. The domestic tranquility of the years since the early 1970s have been an odd interlude, one that is apparently ending. And every spiritual crisis we’ve ever faced has been produced or dwarfed by long-standing material ones. They are not hidden, although sometimes they manage to surprise us.
On Monday, the Capitol was locked down once again as smoke rose ominously behind the building. A rehearsal for the inaugural ceremony was evacuated. There had been an explosion—not a bomb from one of the president’s supporters, but a propane heater at a nearby homeless encampment. A woman trying to keep warm had set a fire that engulfed her tent. She declined a trip to the hospital. It was decided by the authorities that she posed no threat to the Capitol and the people within it. They were right. Our institutions have been placed safely beyond her reach.
Before we set about trying to restore our nation’s soul, shouldn’t we prove to ourselves, first, that we have one? Is there really some noble purpose that we’ve strayed from? One of President Trump’s last acts in office, the release of the partially plagiarized 1776 Report, was putatively an attempt to silence the skeptics on this question; it’s implausible that it convinced any of the unconverted. But what would? How might Joe Biden and our political leaders renew faith in the American project? This was the question on the minds of the nation’s least interesting commentators throughout last summer. And then, as now, the answer was simple: commit to making America a democratic society capable of meaningfully addressing its largest problems.
We have an economy built upon extraordinary and abominable inequities of wealth and power—one that leaves thousands of people in our nation’s capital and in cities across the country searching for warmth on cold January mornings. Reorder it. We face an ecological crisis that will disrupt and destabilize American life 10 times more than another 10 years of Donald Trump would have. Confront it. We are governed by skewed political institutions that, by design, grant some Americans more political power than others. Remake them.
None of these objectives will unite America. But neither did most of the moral and political advances we’re now urged to take pride in. Biden has an opportunity now to remind the American people of this—to frame division as the price for progress and not an obstacle to be evaded. He will not take it. The interests governing his party and our politics will not permit it. And so the tasks of speaking frankly to the American people and agitating for the deepest changes they require will fall to activists and voices outside our political system.
We will fall short—the work of remaking this country will be the work of decades and generations. But we might succeed in setting ourselves off on the right foot. Joe Biden and the political actors who will be subjected to pressure from the left in the coming months and years will not be ideologically converted. They will not be made stewards of progressive values or crusaders in a fight against capitalism. They will remain, forever, dogged opponents in that fight. But there are moments in history when, if conditions are right, the resolve of critical actors with an instinct for political self-preservation can be cracked and material gains can be made. We may well be on the cusp of one now. Let’s find out.