Former vice president Joe Biden is like a comfortable pair of shoes — and I mean that in the nicest possible way. He’s familiar. He’s at ease in our presence and hence puts his audience at ease as well. He lacks the sharp edges that characterize today’s politics. If he decides to run in 2020, voters will certainly have a choice between the known in Biden and the freshness of up-and-comers.
In his appearance at the Conference of Mayors on Thursday, he displayed his considerable, granular grasp of urban policies while transmitting a remarkably optimistic message. “It’s time to lift our heads,” he told the attendees. There’s too much “looking down at our shoes,” he gently chided them.
Like any good politician, he began by praising his audience. The more dysfunctional Washington has become, he observed, “the more consequential local officials become.” He lauded the cooperation between cities and the Barack Obama administration in recovery efforts. Along the way he didn’t hesitate to remind them he has been to “more conferences than [he] can count” and “knows where to go” — to mayors! — when problems need to be addressed.
He rattled off facts and figures — everything from the results of auto emission standards imposed by the Obama administration to a civic improvement project in St. Paul to creation of electric-charging “corridors” funded by the stimulus plan. With particular enthusiasm, he focused on climate change and the real-life consequences of rising temperatures in cities and states. If sea levels continue to rise, 8 to 11 percent of Delaware will be underwater by the end of the century. In the Midwest, he warned, heat spikes and droughts will become commonplace. He asked, “What happens … when John Deere has nothing to plow?” Rising tides and heat prompts wars and mass migration, he explained, recollecting that in his tenure as vice president, the military dubbed climate change the biggest threat to the United States.
Biden castigated the current administration for “walking away” from the Paris accord and from measures to abate climate change while recognizing cities and states nevertheless took up the slack and kept to their clean-energy goals. “We can’t stand alone in ignorance,” he warned in smacking down science denial. “We can do this!” he said about converting to green energy. “This is all within our wheelhouse.”
Despite oblique and not-so-oblique jabs at the administration, he sounded optimistic throughout. He explained his reason for confidence: “I know the history of this country.” America, he continued, is “capable of doing anything.” He got in digs about the administration’s cluelessness in not understanding what a few thousand dollars (the amount saved in heating by insulating one’s home) can mean for a modest family — a new sink, tires for the car, community college tuition. More in exasperation than in anger he exclaimed, “What is wrong with these people!?” The implicit message here: Find someone who understands ordinary Americans, and things will be less horrible.
Mayors heard a plea for maturity (you can ask more of the people, he advised) and mastery of nitty-gritty details. They also saw someone not at war with Republicans, who he insisted shared many of the goals of Democrats (and will come to their senses once they’ve dumped a crazed president, I suppose). In contrast to the never-ending divisiveness from D.C., he was congenial, letting on that he actually liked many Republicans. (“Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” he then joked.) If we “continue down this road” — another swipe at the president’s divisiveness — he asked, “How can we be one America?”
It’s not a given that a primary voter audience would lap up Biden’s policy minutiae the way mayors did, nor overlook his verbal tics. (“That’s no hyperbole folks!”) The 2020 primary electorate may not want a history lesson or be as impressed with Biden’s insider knowledge, preferring instead to hear more righteous anger from their standard-bearer. Nevertheless, he makes a solid case that after four years of ignorance, incompetence and going it alone in the world while neglecting ordinary Americans' needs, Biden can provide a familiar, almost paternal voice. He offers the promise that we can leave governing to the politicians again and return to our daily lives (ah, the luxury of not racing to your Twitter feed to see what Trump blew up in the past hour!), as well as the dream of a less polarized, dysfunctional government. Hey, we could do a whole lot worse. We sure have for the last two years.