In order to expel the worst president of modern times, many voters might be willing to vote for almost anybody.
Fortunately, to oust President Trump in 2020, voters do not have to lower their standards. The Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, is exceptionally well-qualified, by character and experience, to meet the daunting challenges that the nation will face over the coming four years.
Those challenges have been, to varying degrees, created, exacerbated or neglected by the incumbent: the covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed more lives in this country than anywhere else in the world; rising inequality and racial disparities; a 21st-century, high-tech authoritarianism ascendant in the world, with democracy in retreat; a planet at risk due to human-caused climate change.
Underlying them all is the question of whether U.S. democracy is any longer capable of meeting even one such challenge, let alone a host of them. Here is where Mr. Trump has done the most damage — and where Mr. Biden is almost uniquely positioned for the moment. He would restore decency, honor and competence to America’s government.
In contrast to Mr. Trump’s narcissism, Mr. Biden is deeply empathetic; you can’t imagine him dismissing wounded or fallen soldiers as “losers.” To Mr. Trump’s cynicism, Mr. Biden brings faith — religious faith, yes, but also faith in American values and potential.
In place of Mr. Trump’s belittling and demonizing of opponents and allies alike, Mr. Biden offers a deep commitment to finding common ground in service to making government work for the greatest number. He has demonstrated that commitment in reaching across the aisle to Republicans, and also — most recently — in bringing unity to the Democratic Party without compromising his own fundamental convictions.
It is telling that when Sen. John McCain, a Republican, was awarded the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in 2017, the year before his death, he asked Mr. Biden to make the presentation. On that occasion, McCain recalled their service together in the Senate, where Mr. Biden built a record of accomplishment as chair of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.
“We didn’t always agree on the issues,” McCain said. “We often argued — sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions.…
“We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems,” McCain continued. “We believed in our country and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability, and to the progress of humanity.”
Mr. Trump’s negative example has demonstrated how essential in a president are decency, empathy and respect for other human beings. Mr. Biden brings deep reservoirs of each.
But those qualities are not sufficient. A president also needs toughness, governing experience and good judgment.
Does Mr. Biden have what it takes? This year’s campaign offers telling evidence.
Mr. Biden took on some 20 aspirants, many of them considered to be rising stars. To considerable chatter about his past failed campaigns, he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. He had almost no campaign money, little staff and, if you believed many of the pundits, no chance.
Mr. Biden didn’t believe the pundits. He stuck to his game plan, took his fight to South Carolina and won — there, and then almost everywhere on Super Tuesday. In defeating Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), he showed that the party hadn’t moved as far left as some were saying — and as Mr. Trump continues, baselessly, to allege.
Mr. Biden then oversaw a vice-presidential selection process that was free of leaks and unnecessary drama. He chose as partner the woman who, after the fact, almost everyone agreed was the most qualified, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California. In setting aside her stinging attacks on him during the primary contest, Mr. Biden showed that he will govern based on merit, not grudge.
All of that bodes well for a Biden presidency, but obviously voters do not have to judge by this year’s performance alone. Mr. Biden’s well of experience is far deeper.
If he takes the oath in the midst of the pandemic’s second wave, as is quite possible, with the economy in a tailspin, we can be confident Mr. Biden will rise to the occasion. Why? Because when President Barack Obama and he took office in 2009, the nation was in a similarly frightening tailspin. Mr. Obama trusted his vice president to work with Congress to deliver a bipartisan recovery package and then to help administer it, helping save America’s auto industry and the economy more broadly.
Mr. Biden’s competence and honor are more important in this cycle than any particular stand on any particular issue.
But on the issues, too, Mr. Biden offers the nation a welcome, positive vision. It is a vision that refutes both Mr. Trump’s preposterous slander of Mr. Biden as a “socialist” and the fears of some on the left that Mr. Biden is aiming only at a restoration of the pre-Trump status quo.
The slander is not surprising. Mr. Trump — with few accomplishments in his first term and no agenda for his second — was bound to run a negative, dishonest campaign. But in fact Mr. Biden has not succumbed to the wishes of the far left of his party.
At the same time, the world is very different today than it was in 2008 — the challenge from China sharper, the menace of climate change more imminent — and Mr. Biden has shaped his agenda accordingly.
On climate change, where Mr. Trump denigrates scientists and dismisses warnings about a grave threat to humanity, just as he did with covid-19, Mr. Biden understands that no issue is more fundamental to the long-term prosperity of the nation or the world.
He would make it a priority of his administration. Yet, resisting more strident voices on the left, he has declined to use the climate emergency to justify massive, unrelated programs, such as universal federal job guarantees or single-payer health care. Instead, he offers a credible plan for the right goal — making the country carbon-neutral by mid-century.
Mr. Biden similarly has shaped an ambitious and reform-minded criminal justice agenda for today’s world. He would set minimum standards for use of force and condition federal funding on meaningful police reforms. His proposed $20 billion competitive grant program would incentivize states and localities to shift dollars from incarceration to crime prevention.
Far from embracing socialism, Mr. Biden would better position the United States as a capitalist competitor to China. He would do so by rolling back the least defensible of Mr. Trump’s upwardly skewed tax cuts and investing more in education and research; cooperating on trade with allies, rather than spraying tariffs at South Korea, Europe and Canada; and once again making the United States a welcoming destination for the brightest scientists and potential entrepreneurs around the world.
On foreign policy, Mr. Biden offers an enormously positive change from the Trump administration, simply by promising to rebuild long-standing U.S. alliances and the global leadership that Mr. Trump has willfully disrupted.
Mr. Biden rightly observes that the struggle “of democracy and liberalism” to defeat “fascism and autocracy” is not over, but “will define our future.” “Democracy” he has written, “is under more pressure than at any time since the 1930s” — and Mr. Trump “seems to be on the other team, taking the word of autocrats while showing disdain for democrats.” Mr. Biden would convene a “Summit for Democracy” to unite democracies in “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism and advancing human rights.” He would rebuild relations with NATO countries and help them stiffen defenses against Russia. He would end Mr. Trump’s appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin and coddling of Arab dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Biden has a sober view of American power and its limitations; like Mr. Trump he speaks of stopping “endless wars” and bringing U.S. military forces home from the Middle East. But Mr. Biden rejects Mr. Trump’s self-defeating “America first” principle and would return to tackling global challenges in partnership with other nations. He would rejoin the Paris accord on climate change and seek to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. He would reverse Mr. Trump’s senseless withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and commit the United States to multilateral efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
That fundamental difference of approach may be most important when it comes to China, which is likely to pose the biggest foreign policy challenge of the coming years. Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump promise to “get tough” with Beijing and to combat its mercantilism, thefts of technology and expansive claims in the South China Sea. However, Mr. Biden’s approach would be values-based, not erratic and transactional. He would work with allies to confront China’s abusive behaviors while seeking cooperation where interests converge, such as on climate change and health security.
Mr. Biden’s foreign policy offers insight into his technology policy as well: He would stand up for this country’s belief in freedom and openness against the Chinese brand of surveillance authoritarianism, and he would fight to purge foreign interference by Russia and others in elections rather than deny such interference exists. Mr. Biden promises to take a tougher line on so-called Big Tech in antitrust enforcement than his predecessor — but he would do so based on law and evidence, not whim and favoritism.
Democracy is at risk, at home and around the world. The nation desperately needs a president who will respect its public servants; stand up for the rule of law; acknowledge Congress’s constitutional role; and work for the public good, not his private benefit.
Just as desperately, it needs a president with the know-how and experience to show that values and results can go together.
It is fortunate to have, in Joe Biden, a candidate who can lead an administration that is both honorable and successful.