What Biden Didn’t Realize About His Presidency

Joe Biden's head and shoulders are shown in profile against a black background.
Eric Baradat / AFP / Getty

Joe Biden had been president for less than two weeks when he told me something he’d heard from a friend after the election. Biden was like the dog that caught the car, the friend told him—after a lifetime of dreaming of becoming president, he’d finally done it. “I said, ‘No, I think I got the bus,’” Biden told me, reflecting on the combined crises of the pandemic, the economic collapse, and the shaky future of American democracy. “I’m the dog that caught the bus.”

This isn’t the presidency Biden had expected when he entered the race two years ago. He had expected that his task would be reorienting American politics away from Donald Trump’s influence and rebuilding the middle class in the hopes of preventing Trumpism from taking hold again. He did not expect that he’d need to deal with so much despair—or have the opportunity to make so much systemic change.

Biden was behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office when we spoke, in his first interview as president. So much had changed for him in his transformation from presidential sidekick to potential world-historical figure. Sitting behind that desk 12 years ago, Barack Obama had once referred to Biden, his vice president, as the “employee of the month.” Now Biden is the boss, and he seemed to project a new sense of confidence. He told me pointedly: “I’m going to say something outrageous—well, not outrageous: I have the most progressive platform any Democrat who’s ever been president has run on.”

Recommended Reading

At the time we spoke, I was wrapping up my new book about the Trump-era Democratic Party and the 2020 presidential campaign, which I’d been working on for four years. As I moved us off small talk and into questions, I told Biden that my editor and I had just settled on the title Battle for the Soul. It was inspired by a line that Biden had delivered repeatedly on the campaign trail, introduced in an essay for The Atlantic he wrote after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville: “We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation.”

Biden chuckled for a second, a short laugh of sarcastic disbelief. “The difference between you and me, pal,” he said, “is I actually believe it.”

“No,” I replied, “I think you may have been onto something.”

“Everybody in the press thought that the party had moved, that I was from another era, that it wasn’t relevant. ‘What the hell are you talking about, “the soul of America”? For Christ’s sake, Joe, talk about global warming,’ or whatever the hell they wanted me to talk about,” Biden said. “But back then, what I saw with Trump was he didn’t understand anything about who we are as a people.” Biden rattled off his objections to Trump: “His transparent selfishness, his willingness to say anything, his overwhelming appeal to prejudice and division. He didn’t have any social redeeming value, as far as I can see.” Biden acknowledged that he had misjudged how many Americans would buy into Trump’s politics, including his eventual claim that the 2020 election was stolen: “I underestimated his ability to take the big lie and turn it into something that was salable.”

Had the Democratic Party been prepared for the 2020 campaign? I asked Biden. No, he replied. Democrats hadn’t appreciated how much of a challenge Trump posed to the fiber of America itself: “The people who built the country are the people who are all being left behind. When that happens, and you don’t have a counter-voice to The reason you lost your job is because of an immigrant; the reason you lost that job is because those Black folks are taking your job—it opens up the door to the Charlottesvilles of the world.” He echoed something that he’d said right after the attack on the Capitol, back when he was still president-elect: “There’s a direct line between Charlottesville and January 6.”

Still, at the time of our conversation, Biden hadn’t written off the GOP. When we spoke, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming hadn’t yet been kicked out of GOP congressional leadership for calling out the former president’s lies about the election. Biden was early into his negotiations over the Democrats’ first COVID-19 relief bill, and believed that he could still get a few Republicans in Congress to support him. (In the end, the American Rescue Plan passed without a single Republican vote in the House or the Senate.) Were there really deals to be made with the Republicans who had voted to overturn the election results on January 6—after law enforcement had chased the rioters out of the Capitol building?

“They’re in a really tough spot,” Biden said. “You expect people to be willing to get into the second edition of Profiles in Courage, but it’s awful hard … I think there’s enough people out there, but I don’t know.”

Three months later, even Republicans who were critical of the role Trump played in the insurrection have reverted to embracing the former president. They look poised to reject their own negotiated deal for a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that “100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.” Although Biden critics have long said that he was naive to expect any bipartisan cooperation, the president did go into the White House prepared to face some GOP obstructionism—after all, he was vice president during the Obama years. But he’s been disheartened to see many Republicans confirm his worst assumptions.

We covered much more in the interview: what living in the White House is like, the book he told me he wants to write after his presidency is over, and the deep and complicated ways he feels connected to his late son, Beau, who he had once hoped would become president.

Talking to Biden that day, I remembered something that a panicked donor had told me in October 2019. At the time, Biden’s primary campaign was falling apart: He was bumbling through events, funding was drying up, and supporters were desperately trying to convince people not to write him off. “This isn’t Obama,” the donor told me. “No one’s saying this is going to be a transformational president.” What the donor meant was that Democrats could count on Biden to beat Trump—and that that was good enough.

I didn’t relay the donor’s comments to Biden, but I didn’t need to. He knows that’s how people felt. And he knows that many people might see his win primarily as a reaction to Trump. But as I write in the book, he still has ambitious goals for his presidency, inspired by one of his predecessors—during our interview, he pointed out that a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal, was hanging in the most prominent spot in the Oval Office, over the fireplace. How close he’ll get to achieving those aims is a subject for another book.