Joe Biden: Book Review

Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now (2020), Evan Osnos. Having just finished Obama’s first volume of his memoirs and the election to Biden to the presidency, this seemed like required reading. Osnos is a staff writer the The New Yorker and has followed Biden for many years. As expected, much of the book is based on direct conversations with Biden and multiple associated and family, rather than a detailed analysis of his history (which is long and has lots of ups and downs). Biden does seem to fit the label “Median Voter Guy Pal.”


Chapter 1: Annus Horribilis. Osnos interviewed Biden just a few days before the election. Before that, it was 2014. “The world’s richest, most powerful country botched even rudimentary responses to the pandemic—finding masks, making tests—and some agencies proved to be so antiquated and starved of resources that they used fax machines to share data. The White House offered policies that read like mock Kafka; even as people were advised against dining out, it was proposing a corporate tax break on business meals, … Even basic standards of pollical cohesion were failing” (p. 11). Osnos talks about Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ordering test kits from South Korea and used stealth and state police to protect the shipment against seizures by the feds. Then the death of George Floyd.


“Biden believed that Trump’s failures of leadership, particularly in the pandemic, had become clear even to steadfast Republican advocates” (p. 12). Biden is a moderate, but his goals may not be that different from, say, Bernie Sanders: healthcare of everyone, jobs that pay a living wage (a $15 minimum wage), and good education. How we get there is the question. Obama stated: “You have a big-tent party. And that means that you tolerate, listen to, and embrace folks who are different that you, and try to get them in the fold” (p. 17). The pandemic and Biden in the basement may have helped Biden in the campaign. Trump had the opportunity to be racist and inept, while Biden did not make obvious blunders. “Even in Washington, the windbag mecca, he distinguished himself” (p. 21).


Chapter 2: What it Took. Biden can put his foot in his mouth (Joe Bombs): “Biden’s misadventures, which tended to strike when he ventured ‘off prompter,’ in his staff’s anxious phrase, was part of the reason that political wags so often underestimated his potential” (p. 27). He grew up with a stutter, which he usually controls (sometimes with difficulty). He served on a county council after law school, then ran for the senate in 1972. He won by just 3,000 votes, but continued in the senate (becoming the most famous politician in Delaware) until becoming vice president in 2009. His wife and daughter were killed in a car accident before he was sworn in in 1973 and two sons severely injured.


Chapter 3: Grow Up. Hannah Arendt explored authoritarianism, noting that commercial marketing techniques were increasingly used by politicians to deceive: “lying as a way of life.” Biden married Jill in 1977 She continued to work after he became vice president. He developed a growing reputation as a pompous blowhard; plus, he embellished his resume. He liked the cloak-room deal-making. “Nothing in Biden’s record dogged him more than his role in drafting the 1994 crime bill … [which] contributed to the problems of mass incarceration” (p. 49). In addition, welfare support was limited in the 1990s and bankruptcy became more stringent. Clinton capped CEO pay, but allowed performance pay (stock options and bonuses) and executive pay exploded. One result was stock buybacks.


Biden helped Obama early in his senate career, especially national security and foreign policy. Biden initially declined Obama’s offer for vice presidential candidate. Jill urged him to reconsider: “you’ve got to end this war. … How am I going to handle this? To which she replied, ‘grow up’” (p. 55).


Chapter 4: Veep. “By politicians’ standards, Obama projected feline indifference to the adoration he engendered. Biden reached for every hand, shoulder, and head. … Obama was a technocrat, Biden the gut politician. … Obama admired his feisty debate performance, his knowledge of foreign leaders, and his connections in DC” (p. 57). “The vice president asked for one thing, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff recalled. That he could always comment, would never be shut down, and he’d be the last guy in the room to talk to him. And the president lived up to that commitment” (p. 60).


“Al Gore pursued niche projects (the environment, reinventing government), and Dick Cheney guarded what an aide called the ‘iron issues’ (defense, energy). … Under Jimmy Carter, Mondale had rejected small-bore assignments and moved his office from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to the West Wing. ‘My job was to be a general advisor to the president.’ … When Biden signed on to be Vice President, his only requirement was a guarantee that he would be ‘in the deal’—in every meeting that mattered, never unable to reach the president” (p. 61). “When the White House needed to pass the $787 billion stimulus plan, Emanuel asked Biden to call six Republican senators. He got yes votes from three of them, and the bill passed by three votes. … Biden helped nail down votes for the Affordable Care Act” (63).


“I never expect a foreign leader I’m dealing with, or a colleague senator, a congressperson, to voluntarily appear in the second edition of Profiles in Courage. So, you got to think of what is in their interest” (p. 64). Basically, compromise over ideology. “Like much in Biden’s life, his relationship to Obama was built on loyalty” (p. 71). “They were past their early awkwardness around Biden’s ungovernable mouth, and Obama’s weakness for condescension” (p. 73).


Chapter 5: Envoy. “In Biden’s diplomatic phrasing, the president ‘sends me places that he doesn’t want to go’” (p. 75). Like Ukraine. Yanukovych fled after a rule of kleptocracy. Russia took over Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. Biden tried to support Ukraine’s new government; Poroshenko won the presidency. Biden provided a small aid package, but no weapons. Corruption remained a problem. He refused to state things that were untrue: “You’ve got to start off with the assumption: the other guy’s not an idiot. And most people aren’t stupid about their own naked self-interest. … It’s really important to communicate to the other guy that you understand his problem. … Biden had been a strident voice of skepticism about the use of American force” (p. 78).


Obama said: “I think Joe’s biggest influence was in the Afghanistan debate” (p. 82). After a review of policy McChrystal wanted a big counterinsurgency force of 40,000 plus civilians, supported by the defense establishment and Clinton. The questions were what was achieved and what were the specific goals? Obama ultimately sent 30,000 troops, which more or less maintained the status quo (somewhat similar to Vietnam). Gates would criticize Biden severely as “being wrong on every foreign policy issue.” Biden would reciprocate.


Chapter 6: The Lucky and the Unlucky. Biden and Hillary Clinton were long-time friends, but differed on foreign policy—she was a hawk, while he was dovish. The polls showed her way ahead for the 2016 election, while a fair percent of the population did not know who the vice president was. “When I asked Biden how he would decide to run for president, he ticked off the factors: the motivation, the chances, the organization, the family” (p. 108). Bo Biden died in May, 2015. According to an aide: “The whole Beau experience just killed off the arrogant stuff. … He emerged as this sort of humbled, purposeful man” (p. 112). Hunter Biden struggled with drugs and alcohol and discharged from the Navy Reserve for testing positive for cocaine. He joined the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas firm. It did look bad politically.


Hillary set herself up to run in 2016: popular with Democrats, substantial campaign cash, and real political muscle. Biden had raised no money or hired staff, and decided not to run.


Chapter 7: Battle for the Soul. Apparently, Biden decided after Charlottesville that Trump was worse than expected, making him want to run in 2020. Primary opponents were progressives like Sanders and Warren. He thought that moderate voters were important. He ran on reform, but well short of revolutionary. Rather than Medicare for All, he wanted to lower Medicare age to 60 and add the public option to Obamacare. He stressed incrementalism and experience—basically a MVG strategy. Biden took a hit for how he had handled women, starting with Anita Hill, plus he was “touchy-feely”—not sexual but invading their space.


Biden claimed experience working across the aisle. Cory Booker was incensed this included segregationists and Biden was talking about it. Biden did bad in Iowa and New Hampshire, then won big in South Carolina after being endorsed by Jim Clyburn. (John Lewis endorsed Hillary Clinton). Then Biden won 10 of 14 states on Super Tuesday. Most primary opponents dropped out and endorsed him. Bernie Sanders was the last. Biden actually moved toward Warren (easing student debt and overhauling bankruptcy) and Sanders (lower college tuition) on progressive policies. A task force between Biden and Sanders suggested the center and left could work together. He moved toward investing in the “care economy.” He didn’t call for a total ban on fracking.


After George Floyd and the protests after, Biden called for police reform, but not “defunding the police.” Biden said: “I’m embarrassed to say, I thought you could defeat hate. You can’t. It only hides. … What I realized is, the words of a president, even a lousy president, matter” (p. 135).


Chapter 8: Planning a Presidency. What would Biden do as president: “It depends on what the hell I’m left with” (p. 143). Basic stuff includes rejoining the WHO and Paris Climate Agreement, protecting Dreamers, and remove Trump’s migration restrictions especially on Muslims. Strategies for legislation “ranging from comity and charm to ‘scorched earth’” (p. 144). Likely early attempts could include raising the minimum wage and modest climate change steps, especially framed as job creators and reduce energy costs.


“The Republican Party made a decision to change how they operated in a way that makes it very difficult for democracy to function. And, part of the cynicism of that is their recognition that if democracy’s not working, if there’s gridlock and bitter partisanship and division, that discourages and tamps down our voters more than theirs. And they don’t necessarily mind if government comes to a standstill” (p.48).


Another challenge is how to hold Trump and crew accountable: mismanagement, corruption, negligence? An investigation could follow the Pecora Commission probing the causes of the Great Depression and Wall Street banksters. Ditto for Covid-19 investigations. “One of Obama’s aide told me, ‘The lesson of the early Obama years is that there’s nothing really gained from not holding more people accountable” (p. 151).


Michael Sandel’s Tyranny of Merit: “Even as inequality has widened to vast proportions, the public culture has reinforced the notion that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get. … If we succeed, it is thanks to our own doing, and if we fail, we have no one to blame but ourselves.’ In the age of pandemic and systemic injustice, Sandel argued, ‘a lively sense of the contingency of our lot conduces to a certain humility” (p. 165). Biden understanding politicians: “the balancing, the hedging, the triangulation” (p. 165), thinks some Republicans will work with him [a lesson different from Obama and his memoirs].


This was before the election. Biden seemed to handle things well, suggesting a reasonably productive presidency. Trump, not so much.


Time Magazine named Biden and Kamala Harris “Persons of the Year” and had several articles in the December 21, 2020 issue. This was after they were declared victors and therefore adds some additional insights. Biden became an important influence on Obama, and claims he will give Harris the same overall goal. Despite the chaos from Trump and the pandemic, the Biden/Harris team seem to be acting just about right: calling for calm, slowly picking a reasonably diverse cabinet and advisors, and addressing America on key elements. Biden remained big on reuniting America (being more optimistic than me). Presumably, Harris offers the potential for “generational change, a fresh perspective, and an embodiment of American diversity” (p. 46)—given polarization, flamed by disinformation and, what I call, blinders (aka, mas delusion). Harris had attacked him early on in the debates, a surprise because Harris and son Bo, both attorneys general, were close. That didn’t last long. After the killing of George Floyd, the addition of Harris was a real advantage. Biden works well with people, including opponents. He stresses their motivation and makes no attempt to change their minds (something that Obama attempted with no success). The focus was results, which worked well in the past. Part of his makeup is empathy, in part because of the tragedies in his life.


What about the difficulties of governing? One article points out the first thing to deal with (after Trump actually leaves) is decontaminating the White House (literally and figuratively). Then the pandemic across the country and the world. The logistics of vaccine distribution seems to top the list. Then the executive orders and attempting to pass serious legislation—a total unknown.