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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 10/23/20

Joe Biden and the Possibility of a Remarkable Presidency

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From New Yorker

Joe Biden
Joe Biden
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There's really nothing in Joe Biden's character or his record to suggest that he would be anything more than a sound, capable, regular President, which would obviously be both a great advance and a relief. If we could return to the days when we could forget that the White House even existed, for days at a time, that in itself would be worth waiting in line for hours to vote. That said, there's at least an outside chance that the stars are aligning in a way that might let Biden make remarkable change, if that is what he wants to do. America clearly has pressing problems that must be addressed, the coronavirus pandemic being the most obvious. But it also has deep structural tensions that are threatening to tear it apart, and which no President in many years has dared to address. And here's where Biden could have an opening.

For one thing, it seems possible (not that I have let up on my phone-banking for a single evening) that he could win by a large margin -- the polls currently show him further ahead than any candidate was on Election Day since Ronald Reagan when he crushed Walter Mondale, in 1984. A nine-point win, if the margins hold through Election Day, would not be entirely a reflection on him -- there's no evidence that he unduly animates the electorate. But the body politic seems ready to reject, decisively, Donald Trump. People's eagerness to see him gone from our public life has them voting early, amid a pandemic, in numbers that we've never witnessed before. That determination could presage a real groundswell that temporarily breaks the blue-red ice jam that has been frozen in place for so long; right now it also seems plausible that the Democrats could not just flip the Senate but emerge with a working majority that could get things done.

Under normal circumstances, a new President would temper that power, worried about spending it in ways that might alienate the electorate. That's because, no matter what new Presidents say publicly, they are always looking four years ahead. But here's Biden's second possible advantage, carefully hidden in what seems to be his great weakness. He'll be seventy-eight if he takes office; the prospect of an eighty-two-year-old man running for reà lection seems slim. In fact, Biden sent signals in advance of the primaries that he would be a one-term President, and said, in the run-up to his Vice-Presidential pick, that "I view myself as a transition candidate," explaining that "you got to get more people on the bench that are ready to go in -- 'Put me in coach, I'm ready to play.' Well, there's a lot of people that are ready to play, women and men."

Taken together, a big victory and a transitional attitude might let a politician whose career has been marked by compromise and caution throw both to the wind. If Biden's not guarding his approval ratings for a second run, he could, for instance, demand that his new majority give him a lot of stimulus money to work with, and simply not worry about the G.O.P. and the pundit class as they start warning about deficits. (The fact that the Republicans ballooned the deficit just to give the rich yet more tax breaks takes the sting out of their arguments, anyhow.) At this point, getting rid of the filibuster seems all but certain, but Biden could push to expand and reform the courts. He could embrace the Green New Deal, moving money from the Pentagon to the national-security task of building our solar and wind power and setting irrevocably in motion an industrial transition that would transform our economy over the next generation. He could take millions of undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. He could make sure that we have a commission to examine and recommend reparations for Black and indigenous Americans. And so on. The key things that need to happen if America is ever going to get past its stalemated and sickly status quo are as obvious as they are politically difficult. But, if Biden decided that the next four years were all that mattered to him, he could get to work.

And Biden has something else going for him: no one perceives him as a deeply partisan man. For better or worse, he's been entirely willing to cross the aisle throughout his career; that's what Trump describes as his being biddable and wishy-washy. So Biden would have the credibility to tell Americans, "I've given it a real shot my whole life, but right now that aisle can't be crossed." He could get away with saying that the other side, as evidenced by the push to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, isn't behaving honorably, and he might well convince 55 percent of Americans that he's speaking the truth. In our current politics, 55 percent is an overwhelming number, even if it's not enough to reliably overcome the absurd architecture of the Electoral College (which is another broken institution that Biden could work on). Yes, Fox News would try to spin whatever he did as an affront to norms and traditions. But that wouldn't get as much traction as it otherwise would -- the memory of a real norm-breaker will be too fresh in everyone's mind.

Of course, some Democrats may not be happy to follow such a course -- particularly, perhaps, newly elected senators who may have won on some variation of the promise that we need to "work together." (And, in our endless political circus, the midterms will be on people's minds by noon on November 4th.) But the medium-term and long-term impact of forthrightly addressing the key problems in our currently ungovernable country might well be as salutary for the Democratic Party as for the country -- going big is a risk, but so is going small. We can't continue on like this, and almost everyone knows it. If Biden were willing to grasp the nettle, the sting would be real, but history would judge him well for trying, and history now seems to work with greater speed than it used to.

As I said, there's no real reason to think that this is how Biden views the world. He hasn't risked much over the years, and keeping his head down has clearly served him well politically. He's not a great orator, lacking the kind of passion that's normally required to reorient a nation. His biggest virtue is the dull (if welcome) one of decency. But the odd situation he could be stepping into -- the garish glare of Trump in the background, the deep problems of the moment demanding immediate action -- might give him an unlikely chance for greatness. I'm heading back to the phone bank.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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