Bruni argues Biden’s negatives — his age, his long establishment political career, his paper/gaffe trail — make him a bad bet to beat Trump in 2020. But he, too, admires the former vice president, noting, “He’s informed, he’s affable and he’s real.”
Let’s look these characteristics, starting with “real.” The following is a hard admission for a policy wonk to make — I want to hear your 12-point plan! — but I’ve come to believe this may be one of the most important characteristics in a successful candidate. It’s one of the reasons both Bruni and I are always running into people who tell us how much they like Biden and want him to run. Somehow, through all those decades in the Senate, years that far too often extract basic humanity, sympathy and empathy from the members of that body, Biden has maintained a common touch.
I’m not sure how he has done so, but I remember a few striking moments that provide hints. After one White House meeting where someone suggested a complicated policy idea that would actually hurt some people, but in a way they wouldn’t realize right away, he went on a tirade of how this was the part of Washington he hated, when “a bunch of overeducated [expletives] think everybody else is an idiot.” He was livid, and it wasn’t for show — it was just the two of us in his office.
He once “literally” (a Bidenism used in all kinds of nonliteral contexts) called me from a hardware store to help explain a financial regulatory bill to a confused constituent. He put the guy on the phone, and we had a great chat. At another time, when one of my explanations to the vice president got too muddled, he insisted I explain it to his administrative assistant: “If she understands it, you win.” She didn’t. During my tenure with him, I learned that if you really understand something, you can explain to anyone, and vice versa. In another Bidenism, he called this “overstanding” it.
The point is, the reason Biden is “affable and real” is that he profoundly respects ordinary people, and he’s congenitally suspicious of elites for not doing the same. I suspect it is that deep-seated characteristic, perhaps leavened with more personal tragedy than anyone should have to endure, that has preserved his humanity through years of serving in rarefied, elite institutions.
I’d submit that a large and electorally important group of voters has an acute radar for realness (electorally, I’m thinking here about Nate Silver’s “northern path” argument). Again, I’m not saying Biden’s the guy to reach them or that he’s the only one who can do so. Nor do I mean to give short shrift to the concerns Bruni raises, to which I’d add the critical importance to the Democratic base of gender and racial diversity. But woe betide the party that ignores realness in their candidate.
A counterargument asks, “How can realness matter when the biggest phony in the world is president?” I yield to no one in my disdain for Trump’s chaotic governance and divisive, racist victimizing of vulnerable groups. But if that’s your question, you haven’t appreciated that extent to which he, too, emotionally connects with a certain type of person. The difference is that in his case, it’s pure manipulation.
Which brings me to Bruni’s admission about Biden being “informed.” I’ve seen it up close, at least regarding economic policy: He believes in a functional, amply funded federal government doing what it needs to do to offset market failures and deepen public investments. Moreover, like his view that we need to clearly explain what we’re doing to ordinary people, he views good government as a granular, bottom-up project. I saw this when he was handed the job of implementing the Recovery Act, the Keynesian response to the Great Recession. He was constantly on the phone with state, local, and business recipients of Recovery funds, and while no $800 billion expenditure over two years is going to be perfect, the implementation of this massive program was close. There’s another recession out there somewhere, and I shudder to think how a Trump or Trump-like administration would pull this off.
Finally, given his service and what he has been through, Biden has earned the right and respect to pursue whatever course of action he sees fit. I’m an economist, not a political pundit, but from where I sit, the idea that some group of elite Democrats (or anyone else) can figure out who should be anointed to represent the party in the presidential election is the most foolish of fools’ games.
Bottom line, the next president needs to be real, informed and competent. Biden’s all three, and while I agree with Bruni that those vital characteristics come with a lot of other baggage, they’re still among the ones that matter the most.