“Here’s the deal,” Biden always says, but can he close the deal this time? And is it, in fact, his time? If he wins, he will face tasks as daunting as, or more than, those faced by any wartime president. The damage President Trump has done — to his party; to faith in governance, science and the very possibility of truth; to Americans’ faith in themselves and to the world’s faith in America — is incalculable. Trump has not just blown a hole in our ship of state; he has all but scuttled it.
Biden would bring to the job eons of experience, but in some ways, limited experience. Yes, as vice president, he gained a street sense of the world and our own country’s local and state leadership. Still, much of his life has been spent moving in four closely confined worlds: his family, the Senate, Delaware and his role as confidant to Barack Obama. If he wins, Biden will not only be the oldest president but also a president from one of the least populous states. He will turn 78 on Nov. 20. He promises to lead us out of a “dark winter” but will be entering a winter of his own.
So far, so good, though — and there is only one week left to Election Day. A life at once charmed and burdened is now in a sunny upland of luck, success and skill. The bowling pins in the Democratic race knocked one another out, leaving only Biden standing. Bernie Sanders’s regret about not doing more to stop Trump in 2016 prompted him to play ball with Biden this time around. Together they have herded Democrats together, at least through Nov. 3.
The pandemic not only gave Biden the central theme of his campaign — Trump’s murderous, cavalier lack of response — but it kept him from wandering into the weeds by keeping him off the trail altogether. Instead, he locked himself away online with his shrewd team of aides. He kept it short and has tamped down both his blarney and bitterness.
The slot machine of politics, which had so often landed for him on lemons — Obama, for example, concluding that he owed his support to Hillary Clinton in 2016 — finally put Biden alongside the least popular, most corrupt, most cynical and most inept president in American history.
The former vice president’s pitch was, is and will be to the end: I am not what Trump is, and I am everything that Trump is not. Biden offers warmth, empathy, government experience, even cheerful garrulousness. He is not trying to grab history by the throat; he is, as in the Zen of athletic competition, letting it come to him. The strategy is: Trump, in his fevered way, can be The Closer because he will close the deal against himself.
If you are a Biden fan, there is reason to remain wary. While Biden is trying to add Georgia and Texas to the list of states in play, his lead in traditional battlegrounds is, according to the polls, only slightly ahead of where Clinton’s was four years ago at about this point. The online world of blue checks and advertising auteurs is dangerously mesmerizing. These people amuse and delight one another with the latest snarky attack videos against Trump, but they are talking to one another in a world as sealed and self-reinforcing as the one Trump supporters inhabit.
Nor am I sure, sadly, that we are in an era in which appeals to “decency” sell. Yes, the decency police clobbered Joe McCarthy long ago, but this is a much more openly criminal age. We have been drinking gall for so long I am not sure that we are really ready to drink a glass of milk.
But maybe we are. During the last debate, Trump strutted around the ring rhetorically, like a WWE wrestler with his belt of dross, full of lies, bombast and the desperate energy of a man who’d recently uploaded a bathtub full of who knows what steroids. Biden spoke as cogently and calmly as a surgeon diagnosing a disease. He ignored chances to engage Trump in the details of his lies. He smiled coldly but indulgently, turned his eyes to the heavens for patience, and faced the camera to offer himself one more time as a compassionate, and decent, cure.
We’ll know soon enough — actually, it is not soon enough! — whether he closed the deal.