This is not what we’re usually told about presidential candidates. Conventions often tell a particular two-part story about the nominee. He (or she) is of us, connected enough to modest beginnings and ordinary folk to understand who we are and what we need. But he is also better than us, a figure touched by fate, full of nearly superhuman virtues and skills that he will use to turn America into a paradise.
To see this story in its distilled form, watch this 1992 ad for Bill Clinton, which tells of his hardscrabble beginnings but has as its centerpiece the day when the teenage Clinton met President John F. Kennedy. Never had a campaign been more thankful for the existence of a single photograph, as we see the handsome and doomed president shake the hand of the eager young man, destiny passing from one to the other like an electric spark.
Now watch this new ad, in which Barack Obama calls Biden “a resilient and loyal and humble servant.” Biden finally gets his turn at the top not because he is so exceptional, but because he is possessed of virtues available to anyone. The picture we see again and again in the videos at the convention is Biden connecting with people: hugging them, laughing with them, looking deep into their eyes. Other people in politics are brought on to testify not to his greatness but to his goodness, such as Cindy McCain describing Biden’s friendship with her husband John.
There is mention here and there of his accomplishments — some bills he wrote, managing the implementation of the Recovery Act as vice president — but mostly the message is simply that Biden is a good guy. He was officially nominated by Jacquelyn Brittany, a security guard who connected with Biden in an elevator.
“I knew, even when he went into his important meeting, he’d take my story with him,” Brittany said. The important meeting is not what’s important; what’s important is the friend he made on the way.
And right now, the humility Obama cites seems particularly apt, not only as a contrast to President Trump’s bombastic and unearned bragging. Biden’s adult life is defined in large part by loss and grief, and America is enduring a period of loss and grief unlike anything most of us have seen before.
As a way to appeal to voters, none of this is insincere; even his opponents will admit that Biden is eager to connect with everyone on a personal level. His campaign may have produced mountains of policy plans, but Biden does not have what could be described as a unified policy vision around which he is trying to unite the public.
He’s probably more interested in foreign policy than anything else, but there is no Biden Doctrine; instead, he argues that he can restore America’s place in the world because he has made human connections with other leaders. “I’ve dealt with every one of the major world leaders that are out there right now, and they know me. I know them,” he says.
Were Biden running against someone other than Trump, Democrats might be characterizing him differently. But Trump is the opposite of life-size in every way. He has spent decades selling everything he does as comically larger-than-life. His buildings are the tallest, his apartment is the goldest, his brain is the biggest, his deals are the grandest. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like it,” he says to describe even the most mundane developments of his presidency.
Yet underneath, Trump couldn’t be smaller. He’s desperately insecure, shockingly ignorant, utterly unable to control his impulses. In an average week, he stirs up more petty and resentful squabbles than an entire middle school.
Even sitting in the Oval Office with the problems of the world before him, Trump is still the penny-ante scammer who hawked Trump Steaks and constantly finds ways to send business to his properties to squeeze out a few more bucks. He spends hours every morning watching the dumbest show on cable news, and gets his public health advice from the MyPillow guy. He may be the tiniest president we’ve ever had.
So, as in so many ways, Biden may be the perfect contrast to Trump: not falsely puffed up, but not so emotionally small that he can’t feel what Americans are feeling. If there ever were a time when the electorate needed someone who was less than heroic, this would be it.
You can make a good case that all this talk of Biden’s personal good guy-ness doesn’t really mean anything if it isn’t translated into policy — it’s the big decisions a president makes that affect our lives. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to take one counterexample, is a fervent advocate of deeply humane policies who is also kind of gruff and sour in person. Washington is full of Republicans you’d find super-nice if you talked to them, but who would then try to take your health care away, let corporations pollute your neighborhood and stop you from voting.
So come January, having a president who’s decent and empathetic won’t be enough. But right now it sounds positively revolutionary.
Watch Opinions videos: