Joe Biden: American Dreamer: Short but timely character profile

Book review: Evan Osnos analyses the politics of the White House candidate

Joe Biden:  lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car crash in 1972, and later lost his 46-year-old son, Beau, to cancer. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster

Joe Biden: lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car crash in 1972, and later lost his 46-year-old son, Beau, to cancer. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster

In October 2015, Joe Biden held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden. His eldest son Beau had recently died and  Hillary Clinton was considering a bid for president. Flanked by his wife, Jill, and President Barack Obama, the vice-president announced he would not be running to succeed Obama.

“He had run his last race, or so it appeared,” writes Evan Osnos. “But Biden’s life had often turned in directions that were difficult to predict, and it was about to turn once more.”

Five years later, Joe Biden now finds himself within touching distance of the presidency. As Biden himself has said many times, the election of Donald Trump, and in particular the president’s response to the Charlottesville protest.

Events in 2017, prompted him to run for the Democratic nomination. After announcing his candidacy in a union hall in Pittsburgh in April 2019, he entered a competitive primary process, facing off with Democrat heavyweights like senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, before improbably clinching the nomination after a decisive primary victory in South Carolina.

A new book by New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos, published on the eve of the election, is the latest work to offer an insight into the presidential hopeful.

With 47 years in public life behind him, Joe Biden is a man known to many Americans. His personal story – he lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car crash in 1972, and later lost his 46-year-old son Beau to cancer – has in many ways defined his life. But this book tries to get behind Joe Biden the person to analyse Joe Biden the politician, as he prepares to potentially hold one of the world’s most powerful positions.

The book draws on Osnos’s essays for the New Yorker, including interviews he conducted with Biden this summer.

Stammer and insecurity

Beginning with Biden’s election to the Senate, he speaks to people who worked closely with him as he built his political career in Washington, noting his reputation for being curt and demanding with staff, even as he was always the boss who would make the phone call to an employee’s family member or remember a personal story.

He traces Biden’s personal evolution, his success in overcoming his childhood stammer and the influence of his Irish-American mother, but says that the future vice-president “never entirely shed” his early insecurity, particularly about his academic qualifications – if elected, Biden will be one of the few American presidents without an Ivy League degree.

The book is strongest on Biden’s relationship with Obama, where the author draws on interviews he conducted with both men when they were in the White House. As he writes, “they were separated by 19 years and a canyon in style”, but the Obama-Biden partnership worked. Both men complemented the others’ shortcomings – Biden, the effusive, glad-handing politician, a counter-balance to the more austere Obama. They learned from each other and grew closer as the two terms progressed.

While Biden is known for his gaffe-prone nature, he could also deliver when needed. After Obama gave a disappointing performance in his first debate against Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012, Biden took on his own counterpart, Paul Ryan, in the vice-presidential debate and won hands-down. His performance helped arrest Obama’s slide in the polls, according to many advisers.

Joe Biden at the headstone of the Finegan family at Kilwirra Templetown, Co Louth: has a knack of knowing which way the wind is blowing on social issues. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Joe Biden at the headstone of the Finegan family at Kilwirra Templetown, Co Louth.

People hoping that a Biden presidency will help restore America’s standing in the world are reminded of the central role the vice-president played in US foreign policy. He was appointed by Obama to deal with the Ukraine crisis of 2014, a conflict that featured in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, but was one of the dominant international stories of the Obama era.
His role in the intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was also central, if at times frustrating, both for him and others, though Obama told Osnos that he believes Biden’s biggest influence on his thinking was in the Afghanistan debate.

Military action

Biden, as chair of the senate foreign relations committee for many years, had a mixed record on voting on military action. In 1991 he voted against the Gulf War, but in 2002 voted for the Iraq War after a resolution he put forward, allowing President George W Bush to remove weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but not to remove Saddam Hussein, failed. He later regretted the Iraq vote.

Later, critics said he had put too much trust in Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, not least former defence secretary Bob Gates, who was particularly critical of Biden during his time as vice-president.

As Osnos moves to Biden’s most recent political chapter, his analysis of how a Biden presidency might work is fascinating. “In the usual course of a presidential campaign, a Democrat leans left during the primary and then marches right in the general election. Biden went the opposite direction.”

It’s an insightful point. In recent months Biden has tacked left – committing to an increase in the federal minimum wage, for example, and promising to deliver on climate change, even as he stops short of supporting the Green New Deal. As Osnos perceptively points out, Biden has had a knack of knowing which way the wind is blowing in terms of public positions on social issues. He famously came out ahead of Obama publicly on support for gay marriage, even if the move annoyed Obama’s advisers at the time.

How Biden engages with the more progressive wing of his party if he wins the presidency will be a key theme of his White House. So too will be his ability to work with Republicans in Congress. Biden is characteristically optimistic about his belief in bipartisanship, telling Osnos he believes that some Republicans will “see the light” once Trump is gone. “I don’t think you can underestimate the impact of Trump not being there.”

While the book is a timely and stylish work at a key juncture in US history, the speed at which it was published sometimes shows. It is short – arguably too short at 170 pages – and includes some errors. (The Rose Garden speech cited at the top of this review occurred in 2015, not in the autumn of 2016 as stated.)

Nonetheless, Osnos’s fluid style, access to Biden, and insightful analysis makes it a worthwhile and eminently readable portrait of a man who may become the 46th president of the United States.

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