Biden’s story, with a few surprises

David Greenberg

THE WASHINGTON POST – Evan Osnos is an immensely talented reporter for the New Yorker.

The winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, he is best known for his years covering China, though he has written about domestic politics as well.

Osnos has now produced a quickie campaign biography of Joe Biden, adapted from New Yorker articles published over the years and buttressed with some new reporting. The book is an easy read and contains a number of insights – though it’s still a quickie book.

Which is to say, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now recaps a lot of what people who’ve been following the campaign already know.

It even contains several anecdotes that Biden or others recounted at the Democratic National Convention in August.

Still, Joe Biden ably takes the measure of the man and the politician, presenting a picture of the Democratic nominee that is in a few ways unexpected. One surprise is the extent to which Biden – often seen as unwilling to apologise or admit his shortcomingscops to his hotheadedness and even egotism.

“The bottom line was,” he’s quoted as saying about his disastrous pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987, when he plagiarised from a British politician’s speech and ill-advisedly mixed it up with hecklers at his rallies, “I made a mistake, and it was born out of my arrogance.” This is a more mature Biden than some voters are used to seeing – the Biden who (mostly) calmly waited out President Donald Trump’s incessant interruptions during the first debate in order to demonstrate his own fitness to govern.

Biden also possesses, in Osnos’ portrait, shrewder political judgement than he’s normally given credit for. The author showed that Biden, unlike many 2020 rivals, understood that the Democrats had made gains in the 2018 congressional elections by winning over moderates and mobilising liberals, not by awakening dormant, untapped cadres of left-wingers. The Democratic newcomers to Congress in 2019 largely hewed to traditional FDR-through-Obama liberalism, not Bernie Sanders-style democratic socialism. Outliers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar did not mirror the typical 2018 voter.

In other words, what some analysts mistook as a clamour for revolution was really just a reversion to common sense – the sort of common sense on which Biden went on to base his 2020 campaign.

As he jockeyed for position against Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg during the primaries, he by and large stuck to his basic principles. He didn’t chase after the Twitter left – or, refreshingly, show much awareness of what was happening on Twitter at all.

Although it looked grim for Biden after Iowa and New Hampshire, this plan turned out to be astute. Other candidates waffled over whether to support Medicare-for-all or staked out extreme stands on issues like immigration, but Biden continued to espouse tried-and-true liberal positions.

Nor did the former vice president get rattled by the sprinkling of complaints that arose in 2019 over his tactile, backslapping ways of interacting with voters – or, for that matter, the moralistic journalists who amplified those complaints to try to drive him from the race. Biden took the long view and prevailed.

“Biden’s candidacy rested on a bet that, when the pendulum of history swung away from Trump,” Osnos wrote perceptively, “it might swing towarda incrementalism and experience, rather than towards youth and progressive zeal”.