Which is to say, “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now” recaps a lot of what people who’ve been following the campaign already know. It even contains several anecdotes that Biden or others recounted at the Democratic National Convention in August. (One charming one: After Biden, a widower, had been dating Jill Jacobs for a while, one of his young sons asked, “Are we gonna get married again?”) A few sections — such as passages in an early chapter describing Biden as planning a general-election “swerve” to the left — have been overtaken by events, since violence in Portland, Ore., Kenosha, Wis., and other cities, which marred otherwise peaceful protests, forced Biden to strenuously disavow those who might defend looting or “defund” the police. And then there’s the book’s late-October publication date, which won’t make it very helpful to undecided voters mulling their ballots. More likely, the publication date seems premised on the likelihood of a Biden victory in November, after which an ensuing Joe-mania might help move some copies.
Still, “Joe Biden” ably takes the measure of the man and the politician, presenting a picture of the Democratic nominee that is in a few ways unexpected. One surprise is the extent to which Biden — often seen as unwilling to apologize or admit his shortcomings — cops to his hotheadedness and even egotism. “The bottom line was,” he’s quoted as saying about his disastrous pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987, when he plagiarized from a British politician’s speech and ill-advisedly mixed it up with hecklers at his rallies, “I made a mistake, and it was born out of my arrogance.” This is a more mature Biden than some voters are used to seeing — the Biden who (mostly) calmly waited out President Trump’s incessant interruptions during the first debate in order to demonstrate his own fitness to govern.
Biden also possesses, in Osnos’s portrait, shrewder political judgment than he’s normally given credit for. The author shows that Biden, unlike many 2020 rivals, understood that the Democrats had made gains in the 2018 congressional elections by winning over moderates and mobilizing liberals, not by awakening dormant, untapped cadres of left-wingers. The Democratic newcomers to Congress in 2019 largely hewed to traditional FDR-through-Obama liberalism, not Bernie Sanders-style democratic socialism. Outliers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar did not mirror the typical 2018 voter.
In other words, what some analysts mistook as a clamor for revolution was really just a reversion to common sense — the sort of common sense on which Biden went on to base his 2020 campaign. As he jockeyed for position against Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg during the primaries, he by and large stuck to his basic principles. He didn’t chase after the Twitter left — or, refreshingly, show much awareness of what was happening on Twitter at all.
Although it looked grim for Biden after Iowa and New Hampshire, this plan turned out to be astute. Other candidates waffled over whether to support Medicare-for-all or staked out extreme stands on issues like immigration, but Biden continued to espouse tried-and-true liberal positions (improving, not scrapping, Obamacare; deporting unlawful immigrants who commit serious crimes). Nor did the former vice president get rattled by the sprinkling of complaints that arose in 2019 over his tactile, backslapping ways of interacting with voters — or, for that matter, the moralistic journalists who amplified those complaints to try to drive him from the race. Biden took the long view and prevailed. “Biden’s candidacy rested on a bet that, when the pendulum of history swung away from Trump,” Osnos writes perceptively, “it might swing toward incrementalism and experience, rather than toward youth and progressive zeal.”
After winning the nomination, Biden exhibited still more political savvy by extending an olive branch to Sanders and his left-wing supporters, who in 2016 created headaches for Hillary Clinton when she won the party’s nomination. Together Biden and Sanders created “task forces” to hash out compromise planks on various issues. At the same time, Biden told Osnos, “I had to be sure that Bernie was serious, that he wasn’t going to make this an ideological jihad” — as some Bernie Bros had done, for example, at the 2016 convention when they jeered and hollered at speakers they disliked, giving the event an aura of debilitating fractiousness. While it remains to be seen how many Sanders supporters will vote for Trump or stay home in November, thus far they have been much quieter this fall than they were in the last election.
Osnos also makes a point of granting the sincerity of Biden’s appeals to unity — both party unity and national unity. Should he win the presidency, he hopes to resurrect, when necessary, a bipartisan approach to policymaking. Given the Republicans’ recent behavior, Osnos voices some skepticism that they’ll meet a President Biden halfway; he even quotes Barack Obama conceding that his own hopes of working with the GOP were a bit naive. But Osnos doesn’t dismiss the prospect of a legislatively productive Biden presidency altogether. He points out that Biden’s fluency in the language of moderates could make it easier for him than it was for Obama to build a consensus behind a liberal agenda — pitching actions to arrest global warming, for example, as a way to create jobs and save money.
After the exhausting apocalypticism of the Trump presidency and the frustrating polarization of the past 20 years, there is a certain logic in returning to the values of experience, pragmatism, cooperation and unity. Or at least that’s the bet Biden appears to have made.
The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now
By Evan Osnos
177 pp. $23