Franklin Foer: Joe Biden has changed
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.