The Democratic next president of the US has somehow become the man for the moment
Nine months ago, the day of the Democratic Nevada caucuses, I went into a small, electrical workers’ union building on the outskirts of Las Vegas to hear from the former vice-president. Biden had already lost badly in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. While he performed better in Nevada, many were writing off his candidacy.
The mood was downbeat. Most of the other journalists had left town, off to the next stop on the seemingly endless primary campaign cycle. Biden, beneath a modest display of American flags and with the ubiquitous cheery power-music that provides a backdrop to these campaign events, spoke quietly to the supporters and small media contingent in the half-full hall. But his words proved prescient.
The candidate was in many ways the anti-Trump – empathetic rather than solipsistic, unassuming rather than bombastic, a natural team-player
“The press is ready to declare people dead quickly, but we’re alive and we’re coming back,” he said. “We’re going on to South Carolina and win – and then we’re going to take this back.”
A week later he was proved correct.
Biden’s decisive win in the South Carolina primary, powered by an enthusiastic black vote, brought the former vice-president back from the brink. His campaign team had staked their strategy on a strong performance in the southern state, hoping that their candidate could maintain enough momentum through February to weather weaker performances in early-voting states.
It worked. Soon after his victory in South Carolina, opponents like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg bowed out and rallied behind him. Three days after the South Carolina primary, he swept the boards on Super Tuesday, leaving only Bernie Sanders in the race. The Vermont senator ultimately conceded, giving a full-throated endorsement of his one-time rival. “I have a better relationship with Joe Biden than I had with Hillary Clinton, ” he said by way of explanation.
Throughout the summer, as the Democratic Party coalesced around him and his fundraising numbers soared, polls consistently showed Biden leading Trump, even as the conservative media used his low-profile campaign approach due to coronavirus to stoke unfounded theories about his health and mental acuity.
Biden’s address on Saturday night blew those theories out of the water, as he delivered a clearly-enunciated, inspirational and commanding speech.
Biden has shown his ability to move with the times, and sense where the country is heading on social issues
As he referenced, he knows the pain of loss – political as well as personal.
This was his third presidential run after all.
But this time he was somehow the man for the moment. The candidate was in many ways the anti-Trump – empathetic rather than solipsistic, unassuming rather than bombastic, a natural team-player who embraced bipartisanship during his time as senator and vice-president and seeks to bring that political partnership to governance at this highly polarised time.
Challenges in office
Nonetheless, the new president of the US will face challenges as he assumes office. While Mr Biden is expected to issue executive orders in his first days in the White House, reversing some of Donald Trump’s actions, for example by rejoining the Paris climate accord, the political make-up of the Congress will impact on how he can govern.
Though two Georgia Senate races will be rerun in January, it is unlikely that Democrats will gain a majority in the upper chamber. A Republican-controlled Senate will place huge constraints on Biden’s ability to push through changes, particularly on taxation, healthcare and energy.
The former vice-president recently told New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos that he is hopeful many Republicans will “see the light” once Trump is gone, and will be willing to work with Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, has had something of a political journey
But others wonder if Biden is naively wishing for a bipartisan spirit of co-operation and comity he remembers from his 36 years in the Senate but which no longer exists in Washington.
The president-elect will also be facing a divided Democratic Party. While Bernie Sanders and other figures from the progressive wing, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, put their differences with the Democratic mainstream aside during the presidential election campaign, figuring it was more important to unite to defeat Trump, the gloves may come off once Biden is in the White House. Furthermore, House speaker Nancy Pelosi will be weakened given her party’s disappointing performance in congressional races.
Swing to the left
While Biden will not follow through on the more contentious proposals of the progressives such as Medicare-for-All, he may be more left-leaning than some expect.
Unlike most winners of the Democratic primaries, who tend to tack towards the political centre as they approach the general election, he has in fact drifted more to the left in recent months, promising a federal minimum wage of $15 for example, and bold action on climate change.
He consulted left-wing members of the party like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as his campaign approached election day, and could appoint a progressive champion to his cabinet.
Similarly, his running mate, Kamala Harris, has had something of a political journey. She has faced criticism from the left for some of the decisions she took on law enforcement when she was attorney general in California, which many felt damaged communities of colour. But as senator, she has embraced more progressive legislation such as the legalisation of marijuana, which she opposed while attorney general.
As America prepares for a president Biden, it may think it knows a man who has been in public life for 48 years. But Biden has shown his ability to move with the times, and sense where the country is heading on social issues. He famously voiced public support for same-sex marriage ahead of president Barack Obama, annoying Obama’s advisers at the time. As the contours of a Biden administration take shape in the coming weeks, there could be surprises yet to come.