The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden picked up the weight of the presidency, and much of the nation set down its burdens

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris called for unity after being the projected winners of the 2020 election on Nov. 7. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The gravity of the office weighed on Joe Biden long before he became president-elect. Now that the title is his, the scale of the work before him is almost unimaginable. But the glory of this day, of this moment, is not so much what Biden has taken on, but what he has allowed so many in this country to set down.

As the country waited for ballots to be counted, it was Biden — not the occupant of the Oval Office — who was reassuring people that this democracy was intact, that the system was working and that the center would hold. He was the voice of calm optimism in the midst of tumultuous times.

When he became president-elect late Saturday morning, he did something far more herculean than accepting responsibility for a worsening pandemic and a struggling economy. He removed a terrible, suffocating weight from the back of this nation. For the more than 74 million Americans who voted for him — and surely even for some of those who did not — Biden’s election allowed this country to laugh, to dance and to breathe. He cracked open a space where the light could shine through. Indeed, his victory caused people to weep in joyful relief as they became aware of the heaviness that had afflicted their hearts, after they’d suddenly been relieved of it.

Biden lifted some — not all, but some — of the sadness and anger that hovered over the Black community, immigrants, Jews and others as they’d watched the current administration allow white supremacy to grow freely and thrive. Biden was willing to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism not in theory, but in reality. He knew what it meant for a Black parent to give their Black child “the talk” about how to move through life. He knew that it was not just about how to engage with police officers but also about how to avoid suspicion, how to always strive to be better than best, in order to just be seen as okay. Biden could see the world through other people’s eyes and that alone was worth cheering and banging on drums.

He amplified the voices of those who have been raising alarms about a planet increasingly in peril. He allowed science, fact and truth to once again rise to the surface.

His simple dignity and empathy are ballasts for a country that has been teetering between an openhearted, just future and a self-righteous, narrow-minded past. And when he addressed the nation Saturday night, he put his full heft as a statesman and a man of good will to that task.

“What is the will of the people? What is our mandate? I believe it’s this: America called upon us to marshal the forces of decency, the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time. The battle to control the virus. The battle to build prosperity. The battle to secure your family’s health care. The battle to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country. The battle to save our planet by getting climate under control. The battle to restore decency, defend democracy and give everybody in this country a fair shot,” Biden said. “That’s all they’re asking for. A fair shot.”

At 77, Biden knows what it means to be wounded by life. The stress tests he survived have built up his bones and strengthened his foundation. He has mourned his first wife, an infant daughter and an adult son who in his father’s eyes seemed on a trajectory to greatness. He’s felt the anguish of another son who struggles with addiction. Biden aspired to the presidency twice before. And this successful bid for the White House began with the gut punch of calamitous showings before the country’s earliest voters. But he bore up — bolstered by the notable support of Black voters. In South Carolina, they listened to the exhortations of House Minority Whip James E. Clyburn, and they laid hands on Biden’s campaign and brought it back to life.

Black voters raised up Biden because he was the tonic they believed a divided and exasperated nation could accept and he was the reliable partner they could trust. He was a pragmatic choice, but that doesn’t lessen his value. He was the loyal and supportive vice president to Barack Obama — willing to stand behind the country’s first Black president and to share both the beauty of that and the ugliness of it. The country was on the cusp of an era grappling with White grievance and White privilege and Biden, who had competed with Obama in the primaries, accepted his professional shortfall and joined his team. And that said something about Biden’s character, namely that it’s not a hostage to his personal success.

He turned around and helped a Black woman — an Asian American woman — take in the rarefied air of high power when he chose Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) as his running mate. She brought her own skills and constituency to the ticket. She benefited him in his ambitions, and if he has taught this country any single lesson from this choice and his victory, it’s that there’s wisdom in making space for the expertise and abilities of Black women.

Over the summer and fall, Biden tangled with President Trump in two debates and had his best moments when he ignored his competitor and spoke directly to the voters. He campaigned virtually and in socially distanced, drive-in rallies. Instead of those moments coming across as distant and aloof, they often felt more intimate without all of the usual political fanfare. And as he waited through the slow, tortuous counting of mail-in ballots — a slog that created a vacuum of uncertainty that could have easily been filled with chaos — Biden encouraged citizens to be patient and steadfast in the knowledge that their voice would be heard. Not his voice, their voice.

He sought to remind Americans that the count was not a matter of numbers and bureaucracy, it was about people. “Never forget the tallies are not just numbers,” Biden said Friday night as the country was still squirming with impatience. “They represent votes and voters — men and women who exercise their fundamental right to have their voice heard. And what’s becoming clear each hour is that a record number of Americans of all races, faiths, religions, chose change over more of the same.”

Like every politician, Biden is a man with an ego large enough to believe that he can fulfill the duties of the presidency. But for his part, there’s also a recognition that sometimes one’s place in history is most vividly defined not by the number of jobs created — although that is important — but by how lives can be changed for the ages in ways more profound than monetarily.

At a moment when this country’s wounds are deeper and more dire than financial, Biden — the man who has grieved under the public’s gaze, been professionally humbled in the harsh spotlight, spoken earnestly and impolitically of his support for same-sex marriage, and admitted mistakes in his earlier stances on criminal justice — seemed uniquely suited to this moment that was deeply in need of compassion. He is a man who understands that leadership sometimes means simply being human and being able to see the humanity in others. Leadership means carrying the burden so that others might breathe easier or can shine brighter.

Throughout the campaign, Biden liked to underscore his fitness and energy in order to silence the concern that he was too old for the office to which he aspired. He liked to dash up steps and jog along in a parade. He would appear in his official uniform: his navy suit and crisp shirt, his white pocket square folded just so with its perfectly even peaks and his Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses. And his face mask. It was an image composed of dignified old Washington, a bit of regular-guy panache and example-setting deference to science and the problems at hand.

As Biden inched his way to the presidency, his footsteps seemed heavier. It’s hard to bounce on one’s heels as the leader of the free world. But in that steadiness, there’s reassurance. He didn’t come to this race with revolutionary goals that would fundamentally remodel this country. Perhaps there will be time for that. Biden promised to focus on the urgent need to right this country’s course. And in doing so, to give everyone the space not just to breathe — but to safely, thankfully and blessedly exhale.