When President-elect Joe Biden last served in Washington, he lived on the campus of the United States Naval Observatory. Each time his motorcade exited its gates and veered onto Massachusetts Avenue, it passed the Master Clock, a digital timepiece perched in front of the compound’s driveway that synchronizes every other government clock.
Through the car window, Biden would stare, transfixed: “Red numbers glowed, ticking away in metronomic perfection: 5:11:42, 5:11:43, 5:11:44, 5:11:45,” he writes in the opening pages of his memoir about his son’s death. The clock would fade into the distance, but Biden clung to its image, “still marking the time as it melted away.”
Electoral triumph is usually the moment when candidates imagine themselves to be politically invincible and luxuriate in boundless reveries about all that they might accomplish. But even before the Democrats looked likely to stall in their effort to retake the Senate, Biden’s campaign carried an unspoken sense of limits. He will be 78 when he finally takes office, older than anyone who has assumed the presidency before him. The Master Clock might not be an everyday presence in his life anymore, but it will loom in his calculus.
Whereas his recent predecessors have entered the White House hoping for an eight-year stay, Biden’s defining misfortunes have brutally impressed the fact of finitude upon him. Although he has never openly mulled the possibility of serving for only one term, realism dictates the thought.
Throughout the campaign, the knowledge of such a truncated moment of opportunity seemed to liberate him more than confine him. In the beginning of his third bid to become president, Biden styled himself a cautious moderate who stood as a bulwark against the Democratic Party’s ascendant left. But as he began to inch closer to the achievement of his life’s elusive goal, shaken by the pandemic and the inequalities it exposed, he channeled that ascendant left. He riffed aloud about how he intended to reprise Franklin D. Roosevelt’s transformational tenure. In the final week of the campaign, he even took a pilgrimage to Warm Springs, Georgia, the spa where FDR would periodically recuperate and the site of his death.
Biden has always been an easy target for cruel jibes, with his stentorian speeches, the shoulder massages he would dole out to colleagues, and his cheesy catchphrases. This image has proved hard for him to escape. Even with Biden having won more votes than any other presidential candidate in history, the press and official Washington will be slow to take his ambitions seriously.
The left looks at his nostalgia for the Senate gym, the days of a good bipartisan schvitz, and doubts that he has the fighting spirit required to push forward a robust agenda in the face of filibusters and a revanchist Supreme Court.
Without a congressional majority, Biden’s belated dreams of transformation no longer feel plausible. As a creature of the Senate, he may be reluctant to wield executive power with the aggression of his predecessors. But because he may not have to worry about reelection, he has no reason to proceed with political caution, and every motive for disproving those who have pegged him as a mediocrity. His Justice Department can take apart concentrations of economic power and embrace the bipartisan animus toward Big Tech to remake the internet; he can re-create the civil service and the regulatory state that Trump just demolished; he can use the pandemic and economic crisis to push for public investments in green infrastructure and health care; he can dare the Senate Republicans to block a $15 minimum-wage hike and the other popular aspects of his program.
If Biden resembles any recent figure in political history, it’s George H. W. Bush, who arrived in the Oval Office as a member of the Washington establishment in good standing. Both men’s résumés—and relentless global travels—exhibit the sort of experience that editorial pages used to fetishize. Although Biden is technically a Baby Boomer, his manners and squareness suggest generational proximity to Bush. Like Bush, Biden prides himself on his own decency. His equivalent of Bush’s handwritten notes is the personal cellphone number that he doles out to strangers.
Where Bush had to contend with the rise of evangelicals and firebrands like Newt Gingrich, who shifted the Republican Party away from his variety of moderation, Biden will preside over a Democratic Party undergoing its own profound ideological transformation. That similarity suggests both a danger for Biden and an opportunity.
Bush skillfully ended the Cold War, but he couldn’t manage his own party. Biden has already demonstrated greater deftness. After the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, Biden denounced systemic racism far more bluntly than any nominee in history. After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders propounded the Green New Deal, Biden borrowed from it heavily. With his politician’s sense for the limits of the possible, he seems genuinely exhilarated by the shifting of those limits.
Biden’s task isn’t simply to enact an agenda, but to put the country back together again. The past four years have wrecked American society and its institutions, leaving a polity that may be divided beyond healing, pockmarked with conspiracy theories and dogged by a pandemic that continues to kill. Put differently, the country is much like the Biden family after its defining tragedy: dazed and grieving.
In the face of devastation, Biden propelled himself and his sons relentlessly forward. As a young widower, he drove them to school, blasting Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” from the car radio, willing normalcy’s return. In an effort to heal, he rushed to wrap himself around others in mourning. Like Steven Spielberg’s E.T., he seems to instinctually believe in the healing power of physical connection—even if that intimacy can sometimes feel a bit too close. As the Irish literary critic Fintan O’Toole has written of Biden’s grasp, “There is something religious in this laying-on of hands. It is an act of communion.”
After the destruction of the Trump era, the nation is desperate for a parental figure to cultivate renewal amid ruin; shattered institutions will require an almost irrational faith in healing. With so many crises demanding simultaneous attention, what’s needed is the urgency of someone watching time as it melts away.