Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden during a CNN town hall Friday March 27. (CCN Screengrab)
WASHINGTON- The president of the United States goes where he pleases.
Weeks into de facto American lockdown, Donald Trump offers journalists handshakes, floats an Easter resumption of business, and still spars unsparingly with critics in high places. His foe du jour is Gretchen Whitmer, the rumored vice presidential candidate and rising star governor of Michigan, a state the president won four years ago by ten thousand votes. He intervenes in the dissemination of government relief checks, ensuring that his signature, penmanship on the Richter scale, is on every parchment.
Trump’s administration still reports to work. Though much of the country is shut down, the president’s aides grind out longer days than even the prior norm. I can’t tell you what the White House looks like these days, but if anything can be gleaned by the lack of social distance that National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows kept from each other while Trump addressed reporters Saturday, it’s that the administration is no hypochondriac’s delight.
Trump’s disciples, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are among the most laissez-faire in responding to COVID-19, opting, for now, to grin and bear it and preserve something resembling a modern economy. A confidante of Trump’s told me once that he knew the past three presidents, and in each instance, the Oval changed the man. But, Donald Trump? Not a chance.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden addresses Americans from his basement.
Last week, his first video message in days was delivered in what looked like a lounge cardigan. He reported to Jimmy Kimmel on the contents of his stomach, proudly having just dined on some flounder. It’s awkward.
Biden’s opponent in the fall- for the Rachel Maddow viewers in my readership, let me be the first to report Andrew Cuomo will not be the Democratic nominee for president-stands astride the ship of state. The former vice president, not in government, is just a groundhog like the rest of us.
Biden’s obvious discomfort with his new reality-he’s got the tech boys working on ways to make him more accessible, he’ll tell you,come on, man-has poured gasoline into the speculation firestorm. All is not well, is the conjecture.Tucker Carlson is unconvinced Biden will be the nominee. I would only point out that many of the voices that said Biden wouldn’t triumph in the primaries are largely indistinguishable from those now forecasting doom for the doyen of Delaware in the general.
Biden’s style is misunderstood, and currently muted. The would-be oldest president in history is a retail politician in the old school mold. Historically, Biden has seen his proper opposite not as Barack Obama, or Donald Trump, but Bill Clinton. Four years older than the forty-second president, Biden’s longtime inner circle sees much of history as cruel twists of fate. That’s easy to do if you have a personal life so utterly beset by tragedy, as Biden does.
It could have been Biden, as a young man, that set the tone for a new generation of leadership. If Biden had triumphed in his first presidential run, in 1988, who knows, perhaps America could have been spared the Clintons and rid of the Bushes. Biden certainly would have fared better, old loyalists maintain, than the disastrous Michael Dukakis, had he not been DQ’ed by a scandal, law school plagiarism, few would have cared about today in our new age of Trump.
To run for president is to look in the mirror and see a motor of history. And Biden is no exception. Like Bill Clinton, Biden won major elected office before thirty. Unlike the imperious Obama and the enigmatic Trump, Biden is a gladhander in the old style, and back in the day a notorious windbag in a windbag’s valhalla, the United States Senate. The true politician is less Caesar than Freud, dissecting and psychoanalyzing the contradictions of the human condition, a friendly ear to his most lonesome constituents.
The New York Review of Books dubbed Biden the nation’s “designated mourner,” and I think that’s right. Those who missed Biden’s potency in the Democratic primaries this year were usually not the reporters and pundits on the ground. Biden’s style, of bravado, of exaggeration, of long-winded, stumbling anecdote, is a ghastly fit for TikTok culture. Buton the trail, and among those who actually vote, those older, richer and less online, Biden’s still golden, even in his golden years.
Biden has an easy, egalitarian manner about him. “All men are created equal,” Biden is fond of quoting. “You know the thing.” As New York Magazine‘s Olivia Nuzzi reported: “He calls every male-presenting human he encounters ‘man.’ I watched him call a baby ‘man.’ As in, Hey! How-areya, man?!”
That’s actually the biggest disadvantage for Biden during America’s quixotic quarantine. He’s a grass player and he’s playing on clay.
As an aside: Biden’s all-American, aviators visage would seem to have quietly, if perfectly translated to consistent acclaim in Hollywood. As ex-studio honcho Sherry Lansing, who hosted a confab for the career pol in Bel Fair, noted to the Mercury News: “When he shook their hands, he had something personal to say to them whether he knew them or not. … There’s nothing that can replace face-to-face human contact.”
Trump is doing well, with by many measures the highest approval rating of his presidency. To see Trump triumph, yet again, is to the president’s many critics the latest in a series of cosmic jokes. Nothing matters.
But I wouldn’t count out Joe Biden. The PredictIt price for Biden to win the White House is now at 40 cents, below Trump’s at 51 cents. I don’t trade, but I always find interesting the assessments of those who put their money where their mouths are.
But that price is too low. By fall, the Corona crisis will have receded- but so, too, will have the economy. If Biden’s an aged, uncritical figurehead, he could preside over a monstrous restoration in Washington. You can still hate Donald Trump and love Barack Obama, but this time came from that time.
To his leftist critics, Biden is pollyannish: irrepressibly retro, dangerously accommodationist of the Republican Right. “As much as I dislike Trump and think what a bad job he’s doing, there’s a danger now that attacking him can backfire on you if you get too far out there. I don’t think the public wants to hear criticism of Trump right now,” an outside advisor to BidentoldPolitico‘s Ryan Lizza last week, in an excerpt that went negatively viral. But what if that outside advisor is right? Biden offers a more palatable alternative than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. Just ask Bernie Sanders, who’s actually on track to perform worse, when it’s all said and done, in 2020 than he did in 2016.
Biden’s reported vice presidential shortlist is savvy, not somnolent: Whitmer, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Mastro, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. Former Governor Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign pursued, until he didn’t, a strategy of consistent, but unspecific opposition to Barack Obama, amidst a shaky economy. Figures such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman were the prospective choices. But the now-Utah senator panicked and changed course as the summer months wore on, convinced by ideologueslike William Kristol to go big or go home, and to select either Sen. Marco Rubio or Rep. Paul Ryan. Among other factors, Rubio’s vetters werespooked, and the baton was passed to Ryan, creating a ticket that was soundly defeated and rightly mocked as neoconservative- and market fundamentalist. For Biden, the lesson should be clear enough: It might not take all that much.
Time will tell if Joe Biden is, indeed, the hallow man. But President Trump still has reason to fear defeat by stealth attack.