To paraphrase a famous line from “The Dark Knight”: Joe Biden is the president we deserve, but not the one we need.
I’ve written quite a bit about Biden over the course of my career because – as a PhD student focusing on American political history – I can’t help but admire such a quintessential throwback. We live in a time of “authenticity” rather than authenticity, one in which presidential candidates can skyrocket to the top of the polls for blatant pandering and demagoguery that seems “real” rather than offering actual substance. By contrast, Biden has always been a politician who speaks his mind from a clearly genuine place (even if that makes him a bit gaffe-prone), usually with the underlying message that we need to create an America which focuses less on partisan bickering and more on helping those who need it most.
These qualities were particularly evident in the Rose Garden speech during which he announced that he wasn’t going to run in the 2016 presidential election. First he explained, with characteristic candor, that “as my family and I have worked through the grieving process [for the death of his son Beau earlier this year], I’ve said all along – what I’ve said time and again to others – that it may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president,” and that it turns out they are now “out of time.” After that, Biden went on to urge Americans to embrace President Obama’s legacy, which led America from “crisis to recovery,” and reminded the powerful that in the end they aren’t fighting simply for themselves. “Go back to your old neighborhoods,” he urged the reporters and politicians who had gathered to hear his announcement. “Talk to your contemporaries who aren’t as successful as you’ve been.”
If you think Biden came up with this rhetoric simply because it matched the occasion of his “choose not to run” moment, you’d be wrong. In fact, Biden’s first became a national figure for expressing very similar thoughts in a speech at an Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in 1985. At that time, the Democratic Party was mired in a fierce internal battle between center-conservatives who believed the party should abandon the progressive legacy of forebears like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and staunch liberals who were convinced that dyed-in-the-wool rhetoric could win converts despite the landslide defeats of George McGovern and Walter Mondale. In that address, Biden reminded his fellow Democrats that success would only come from focusing on the concerns of struggling Americans – from members of the working class to victims of gender or racial oppression – and listening to them regardless of whether their words fit into either a preexisting ideological agenda or the demands of specific special interest groups. ”It’s time we hear the sound of our country singing and soaring in the dawn of a new day,” he proclaimed. ”It’s time to restore America’s soul. It’s time to be on the march again. It’s time to get America on the move again. Our time has come.”
Throughout his career, Biden has remained faithful to this message, whether in terms of policy (such as passing landmark legislation protecting women’s rights or blocking the confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court) or his own life, most notably his decision to live in Wilmington and commute an hour-and-a-half to Washington during his Senate career instead of losing touch with his constituents and family by moving to DC. All of these qualities speak to a deeper idealism that America deserves… and, indeed, will be much poorer if it winds up losing. At the same time, they are qualities that seem out of place in our current election cycle, in which PR spectacle and incendiary rhetoric propel candidates far more effectively than any kind of coherent national vision.
That’s why the aforementioned line from “The Dark Knight” comes to mind as I reflect on the end of Biden’s career as a presidential candidate. At this point in our history, America probably won’t elect a politician like Joe Biden, but that doesn’t mean future Joe Bidens don’t have a place in our political life. Quite to the contrary, anyone who believes in America’s underlying ideals should hope that we will continue to benefit from their service in our political life. We deserve nothing less.