Where is Joe Biden?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Do you remember that classic puzzle bookWhere’s Waldo? It was first marketed in 1987 and placed Waldo, a tiny, oddly dressed, twenty-something figure amidst hundreds of other ordinary folks. The challenge was to find him in the crowd. Today the Waldo puzzle is still out there but, because in the latest version he is wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, he is not so hard to find.

The Where’s Waldo? puzzle has recently lent its iconic title to a different question: “Where’s Joe Biden?” Because Biden is the prospective Democratic presidential nominee, this question denotes more than a puzzle game. Some argue that, despite the present contagious environment, Joe Biden should be a lot more visible than at present. Why so?

Well, it might be true that our present Republican president, the all too easy to find Donald Trump, is in the process of self-destructing. But given the often fickle state of mind of the American voter, the Democrats would be ill advised to just rely on the Republicans to defeat themselves.

So Just Where is Joe Biden?

Thanks to an in-depth article in the New York Times (NYT), we do in fact know where Joe is. He is presently hunkered down at his home in Wilmington, Delaware—involuntarily cloistered in the basement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, according to the NYT, Biden is not just twiddling his thumbs.

Joe Biden is in an information-gathering mode. He has daily briefings via conference calls with chief aids and other advisers. The daily topics are invariably the state of the national economy; the state of the national health; and electoral strategy “seeking to map out the fall campaign and a potential administration.” Occupying only an occasional subject of discussion is the category of foreign policy.

In the process, Biden seems to be presenting the picture of a sober elder statesman to be contrasted with the present erratic occupant of the White House. Whether the cloistered elder statesman image will cut it in an agitated age of pandemic, economic collapse, and global warming is something that is worrying a lot of Democrats.

There can, of course, be no campaigning although Biden has experimented with virtual town halls and round tables). Unlike Trump, Biden hasn’t got a bully pulpit. Nor has he figured out how to replicate what can be called the Governor Cuomo phenomenon of drawing almost daily media attention to himself by the sheer public mastery of his circumstances. So, the Democratic leadership, never the most imaginative of pacesetters, seems to be content with casting a low-key virtual image.

There is another factor that keeps Biden secluded. The last thing the party leaders want is for the 77-year-old Biden to get sick (“rare outside visitors don masks and gloves as a safety measure”). A Corvid-crippled Joe would probably bring a Bernie Sanders candidacy back to center stage.

A Man for Our Time?

It appears that behind the scenes, Joe Biden is not optimistic about the nation’s near future, even if he wins the November election. “Before Mr. Biden entered his state of near-quarantine, he was telling associates that he feared the onset of a national catastrophe” in the form of  “another Great Depression.” This contrasts sharply with Donald Trump’s prediction that the economy will soon “come roaring back.” If the precipitous movement towards reopening the economy under Trump’s leadership backfires and triggers a national reinfection, Biden’s concern will prove much closer to the truth. Under such circumstances, he may very well win the presidency even if he never leaves his basement.

And then what? Can Joe Biden be a man for our time? Can he be the leader who saves us all in this crises-ridden hour? Considering Biden’s political record, one has a hard time imagining this.

There is a recently published (January 2020) book entitled Joe Biden, Yesterday’s Man. Written by Branko Marcetic, an investigative reporter and staff writer for Jacobin magazine, the book lays out Biden’s political biography. It argues that Biden’s political sensibility is that of a 1970s suburbanite. He sees his base as being a white middle class that has, in truth, shrunk and turned to the right. That process has, on occasion, led him to turn to the right (he has a record of sharp reversals on positions when subjected to heavy pressure). He has no problem taking corporate money (he told donors that with a Biden presidency “nothing fundamental will change for them”), and is the friend of many powerful lobbies. Biden is a politician whose lifelong self-image is that of a great conciliator—someone who believes he can work with all groups. In the 1970s, he cut political deals with segregationists in Congress so as to “get things done.” As Marcetic shows, what Biden got done at that time was putting a stop to busing as a method of desegregation. Biden seems to think he can now work with the Trump Republicans as well. Finally, as we will see below, he embraces most of the nation’s immoral foreign policy.

As it stands now, Biden’s ambition does not go any further than a naive desire to take the nation back to the time before Trump—“make it [America] like it used to be”. Two things can be said about this ambition. First, unfortunately, historical times cannot simply be reversed. Second, to limit your goal in this fashion means you fail to realize that “like it used to be” perforce embodies the problems that led to the “time of Trump” in the first place. Thus, Biden’s present thinking can only provide superficial and ultimately unsatisfactory answers to challenges facing both the U.S. and the world beyond.

Then there is Foreign Policy

Biden and his present advisers “largely embrace the core principles that have driven U.S. foreign policy for decades,” namely, the U.S. must lead the world, spread pseudo democracy, be loyal to its allies, etc. Here Biden is most often “yesterday’s man.”

Israel: Biden has been a loyal friend of Israel even during the tensions that arose when he was vice president under Obama. He has known Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 30 years and considers him a good friend. As vice president, Biden once told Uzi Arad, one of Netanyahu’s advisers, “Just remember that I am your best fucking friend here.”

If this holds true, what can one really expect from Biden the president? It would come as a surprise if Biden reversed Trump’s over-the-top embrace of the Zionist state. He has already said that, as president, he would not move the U.S. embassy out of Jerusalem. Even in the face of astronomical U.S. debt, Biden probably will still insist on giving billions of dollars to a Zionist state that, on multiple counts, stands in stark violation of international law.

Venezuela: It would appear that Biden would have little trouble following up on the Trump administration’s promotion of a rightist coup in Venezuela. For all intents and purposes he has backed Trump’s aggression in this arena and, of course, done so in the name of democracy.

Iran: Biden says he continues to support the 2015 nuclear deal Obama helped negotiate with Iran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, he does so from the stereotypical American view that Iran continues to be “a destabilizing factor in the Middle East.” As president, he claims that he will rejoin the agreement. This would certainly be a positive move, but don’t be surprised if the Iranians are a bit suspicious of Biden—after all, they too know his political biography.

Conclusion

A conciliatory, mediocre leader, who has shown little ability to resist the will of lobbies and donors, might find greatness when forced to face novel challenges. But that does not happen very often, and from all we do know about Joe Biden, the odds are against him blossoming in this fashion.

If elected, Biden will face three immediate challenges: (1) a nation struggling to overcome plague, (2) an economy in deep recession, and (3) a world climatically self-destructing (Biden’s record on climate change is “sketchy). According to the NYT, Joe Biden, secluded in his basement, is trying to prepare himself to meet these challenges. However—and here is the key factor—he is doing so as the machine politician he has always been—and that one-dimensionality will certainly help define the results. Trump might well be dethroned, but there will be no new and better world emerging under Joe Biden. When all is said and done, perhaps things will become (compared to Trump) less bad.

 

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.