In Barack Obama’s just-released memoir A Promised Land, he writes that one of Joe Biden’s biggest problems was that he couldn’t tame his tongue.
In Washington, “a town filled with people who liked to hear themselves talk, he had no peer,” says the former president.
But while his “lack of filter periodically got him in trouble,” Mr. Obama found the weakness trivial compared with his vice-president’s attributes. He cared about ordinary people and tried to bring Americans together, he says. “Most of all Joe had heart.”
Now, as president-elect, Mr. Biden is promising, as Mr. Obama did, to construct a government that “looks like America.” Like Mr. Obama, he wants to be a unity president. And like Mr. Obama, he faces a next-to-impossible task.
With his initial appointments, Mr. Biden – much in the way of Justin Trudeau, circa 2015 – is making diversity a driving imperative.
In Kamala Harris, he selected the first Black American and the first woman to be vice-president. His transition team is comprised of almost half non-white Americans. Nine of the 13 members of his COVID-19 advisory board are people of colour.
The leading candidates for most of the top jobs in the Biden cabinet are primarily women. Among the possibilities are Michèle Flournoy, who could be the first female Secretary of Defense; Susan Rice, who could be the second Black woman to serve as Secretary of State; and Federal Reserve Board governor Lael Brainard, who could be the first woman to lead the Treasury department.
Former acting attorney-general Sally Yates is a top contender for the full-time position. Labour union leader Lily Eskelsen Garcia is a good bet for the Education department. Pete Buttigieg, the young gay small-town mayor and former presidential hopeful who became a kingmaker when he threw his support to Mr. Biden when he’d won only one Democratic primary, is earmarked for a big post. Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur and Democratic upstart born to Taiwanese immigrants, could well be Commerce Secretary.
In contrast to Donald Trump’s cluster of old white men, the team will indeed be a reflection of the make-up of America. But how much will that mean?
In 2009, Mr. Obama appointed the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history. Women and people of racial and ethnic minorities outnumbered white guys.
Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Obama was a moderate Democrat, prepared to be conciliatory and bipartisan. But his years in power saw a rise of the far right, the onset of the Tea Party and ultimately the election of the divider-in-chief, Mr. Trump.
In his 751-page memoir, in which Canada receives but one tiny mention (Mr. Obama was no fan of Stephen Harper), the former president writes of the despair he felt in trying “to find common ground with a party that increasingly seemed to consider opposition to me its unifying principle.”
His being Black was no doubt part of the problem. But he had more advantages than Mr. Biden has now. He had a stronger electoral mandate. The country was fractured in 2009 but not as fractured as it is now. On the Republican side, he didn’t face a leader like Mr. Trump, whose megaphone has a narcotic hold on tens of millions of followers.
The detachment of the Grand Old Party from reality was emphatically illustrated in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday showing that about half of all Republicans believe Mr. Trump “rightfully won” the election.
Mr. Biden’s quest for bipartisanship will likely see him name a Republican or two to his administration, as Mr. Obama did. It will be seen as tokenism. In the Obama years, the left side of the Democratic party wasn’t the force that it is now, a force that raises the ire of conservatives.
In the media, Mr. Biden will have the increasingly biased CNN in his corner, but Fox News is likely to be unyielding.
Mr. Biden’s intentions in creating an administration that looks like America is laudable. His character and experience are a good fit for the times. For stability, for decency, for dignity.
But having spent eight years at Mr. Obama’s side, the president-elect is all too familiar with the vehement opposition he faced in his quest for unity. He knows it is even fiercer now – but he will try again.
He’ll find inspiration at the start of his old boss’s book, in a favourite Obama quotation, taken from an African-American spiritual: “O, fly and never tire, Fly and never tire, Fly and never tire, There’s a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.”
Like Barack Obama, old Joe is ever-hopeful. He’ll strive against the odds to come closer to that land.
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