Unless, of course, someone on team Biden is channeling Bobby Kennedy’s famous advice and hanging a lantern on his problem. Yes, Joe Biden is 77 and has been in Washington forever. His fundraising is lame, his crowds are lackluster, and I’ve yet to hear a message beyond “pick me and I’ll leave you alone while I fix stuff.” But maybe that’s not such a terrible message after all.
It is unfashionable and unsexy for a candidate to promise to slow the pace of change and give us a chance to catch our breath. Still, I suspect Biden’s surprisingly stable level of support, despite serial stumbles in debates and at campaign events, reflects exactly that allure. It is a mood in the nation, a yearning for normalcy, as powerful as the alienation that brought Donald Trump to office three years ago.
Elections are always a choice between continuity and change. What if, in 2020, the change voters want is actually a pause — not for the long expanse of eight years but for four, time to recover from the craziness of life under Trump. As though the pace of automation, innovation and technology were not unsettling enough, we’ve had three years of news cycles that have left our teeth hurting, agencies ransacked, norms shattered, whole swaths of government demoralized and strategic alliances cracked if not broken. Even some disgusted voters who cast a ballot in 2016 for radical disruption may have gotten more than they bargained for.
President Trump’s sinister attacks on the “deep state” have driven out talent and discouraged those who remain. I’m thinking of the scientists in the Agriculture Department who were told they’d have to move halfway across the country if they wanted to keep their jobs. And the intelligence officials and diplomats whose difficult and dangerous work has been serially discredited by their commander in chief and his enablers. By failing to lead, refusing to plan and making it hard for the government to function, Trump strengthens the contempt for institutions that was already poisoning our politics.
No policy agenda, however popular or urgent, has much chance of success until the machinery of government can be rebuilt and trust in it restored. We don’t have time for a learning curve. Unlike his fellow septuagenarian candidates, Biden served eight years in the White House and nearly 50 years in the capital, which means that if nothing else, he knows his way around the engine rooms of power and process. How do you fix health care, revive environmental oversight, revisit the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal? Does the growing overhang of public and private debt expose the United States to another financial crisis, and do we have any systems in place to prevent one? If NATO is suffering from “brain death,” as French President Emmanuel Macron recently suggested, what should be done to get it off life support?
The next U.S. president has the dual challenge of restoring both our faith in government and its faith in us — that is, the conviction among public servants that they will be able to do their jobs without threat or tweet or being denounced as “scum.”
Biden’s belief in public service is palpable; maybe it can be contagious. Yes, he poses problems as a candidate and may well flame out before the crocuses emerge. But the idea that he would serve only one term is not crazy; it’s merely realistic, and might even be a competitive advantage. If people are exhausted by the Trumpian revolution, do they really want the version that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren offers, much more deliberate but in its own way — $20 trillion health reform? $30 trillion? — as disruptive? Even for voters who do want radical change and a fresh vision, reform is more likely to succeed after a janitor has mopped up the mess.
We had a phrase in our family, after especially busy weeks of work and school, exams and deadlines and social events, that we needed a health night. No parties, just PJs, taking it easy and going to bed early. America may be longing for a health night. A chance to calm down, clean up and heal — not an eight-year hiatus but a single term of reconnection and revival. A moment of national self-care. Joe Biden may or may not be the guy to preside over this next passage, but whoever does, it may take four years of rehab just to restore the muscles of our democracy.