David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
Some 16 hours after the polls closed in the faraway precincts of Alaska, former vice-president Joe Biden stepped to a rostrum 7,242 kilometres away, in Wilmington, Del., and, before a bank of television cameras, promised a presidency that would “stop treating our opponents as enemies.”
Mr. Biden is not Lincolnesque; he does not possess the rhetorical power of the 16th president, nor the classical erudition of the self-educated Civil War leader. But Mr. Biden, with powerful winds of momentum behind him in key battleground states but with the presidency not yet in hand, struck a mystical Lincoln chord, a resonance from his 1861 Inaugural Address, delivered less than a month after the seceded Southern states created the Confederacy.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” Abraham Lincoln said, the outbreak of the War Between the States 39 days away. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
If he ultimately prevails in the still-undecided election, what kind of president might Mr. Biden be as the heir, 160 years on, to Lincoln’s position?
“He’ll be the president for this moment,” former secretary of state John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and one-time Senate colleague of Mr. Biden, said in an interview. “He is a ‘people person,’ he knows the issues and is deeply committed to the democratic process and the rule of law. He wants to be a healer. There will be no shortage of Joe reaching out his hand to offer people – Republicans and Democrats alike – a chance to work together.”
Mr. Biden may be best viewed as an amalgam of the presidents of the past.
He is one part Lincoln, as his Wilmington remarks foreshadowed. But his goal would be, as he put it, to “lower the temperature ... to unite and heal and come together as a nation” – another echo of Lincoln, this one from the climax of his second Inaugural Address, delivered in 1865, when he said it was time “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
And one part Dwight Eisenhower, who, according to Gettysburg College historian Michael Birkner, who has written widely on the Second World War general, “exuded the kind of positivity, empathy and sensitivity that Biden has.” Although Mr. Biden lacks the Eisenhower military experience, he might be regarded as the old warhorse of American politics, with the down-home genuineness and gentility of the 34th president.
Historians have filled scores of volumes exploring and explaining the Eisenhower character, but perhaps the most telling account – the one that also explains Mr. Biden’s mien – may be the testimony of the wife of Sir John Dill, Winston Churchill’s wartime military liaison in Washington. “The Eisenhowers often came to supper with us in the evening, and a more delightful couple it would be hard to find,” Lady Dill said. “They were full of humour, good sense and intelligence. ... He did not change, remaining just a simple, natural man.”
And one part Lyndon B. Johnson, who spent most of his adult life as a creature of the Capitol, cultivating friendships, understanding the unswerving rhythms of the House of Representatives and the peculiar prerogatives of the Senate. Mr. Biden lacks Mr. Johnson’s instinct for brutal persuasion in the Capitol’s cloakrooms but possesses the Texan’s intimate, intuitive knowledge of the quiet levers that move lawmakers from contention to compromise.
“He worked in the Senate at a time when Democrats and Republicans saw each other as colleagues, not opponents – a different era than now,” said Delaware Governor John Carney, a one-time House member who has been part of the Biden circle for decades. “When Barack Obama would send Biden down to the House, he struck us as one of us. He commanded respect and showed respect. Whether you are a member of the General Assembly here in Delaware or are in the Congress of the United States, respects matters a lot.”
And one part Ronald Reagan, full of corny locutions and well-worn anecdotes, a magus with lawmakers – Mr. Biden was a senator for 36 years – and a master of personal relations. “I always found him to be extremely decent, fair, willing to listen to my side even if we didn’t agree, which we almost never did,” said former Republican senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who served with Mr. Biden for 16 years. “His purpose will be to govern and he will be willing to listen, though he does tend to talk too much.”
And entirely Joe Biden – the son of hardscrabble Scranton, Pa., with a taste for expensive real estate; a lion of the Senate with his family lair a daily train ride away from the Capitol back to Delaware; a political figure with ten thousand friendships and a thread of loyalty binding him to every one of them; a man with a luckless life of tragedy and – with the presidency in reach in his third try for the White House – perhaps the luckiest politician in contemporary American political history.
“He was dealt a hand he didn’t think he would get,” said former Massachusetts state representative Thomas Vallely, who travelled with him throughout his doomed 1988 campaign, “and now he can play that hand.”
Mr. Biden’s ascendancy to the presidency would be in large measure the product of the forbearance of the liberal-leaning wing of the Democratic Party, which did not harangue him to embrace its priorities. Even so, his principal problem in Washington may not be with the Republicans who sided with enormous consistency with Mr. Trump, although there already are signs that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will resist confirming Cabinet appointments who lean too far left. Mr. Biden’s difficulties instead may be with members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Mr. Biden would likely undertake some policies that will please them, including rejoining the Paris climate-change accord, reversing Mr. Trump’s steps to withdraw from the World Health Organization and ending U.S. support for the Keystone XL pipeline, the conduit for sending Canadian oil products from Alberta as far as Texas. He would continue to wear a face mask in public and in meetings.
But Mr. Biden has reservations about adopting a Canadian-style health care system that these lawmakers desire. He is less eager than his putative progressive allies are to contemplate expanding the Supreme Court.
Indeed, outreach to Republicans may emerge at the centre of the Biden first-year strategy, and at the centre of the Biden instinct. Whether his GOP rivals will meet him halfway is not certain. But he very likely will target as potential allies – separately, and on discrete issues – many of the 22 Republicans who must seek re-election two years from now, especially Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Rob Portman of Ohio, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Roy Blunt of Missouri.
But Mr. Biden – a centrist in the Democratic Party but not in a nation often described as a centre-right country – will have some priorities of his own, growing out of his years in the Senate and in the vice-presidency.
One of his first impulses almost certainly will be to roll back Trump executive orders on justice and labour matters. One anecdote and one measure speaks for many.
In May, 2016, Mr. Biden joined Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio in Columbus to formalize a rule extending overtime pay to 4.2 million Americans who had until then been ineligible. “That rule never quite took effect,” Mr. Brown said this week. “Biden will fix that rule and a lot of the other regulatory rules the Trump administration granted as favours for the oil companies and the insurance industry.”
But the Biden difference would likely be more in public mood than in political measures.
“The contrast with the current President will be pretty dramatic,” said Mr. Carney, who has discussed the matter with Mr. Biden’s team. “He is a unifier and is respectful. He will lead with example on the coronavirus and will respect the experts who have been ignored by the White House. Leadership requires a certain touch, and Joe will have a very different touch from Donald Trump.”
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