Compared to the sweeping liberal romanticism of Barack Obama and the raw political cynicism of Bill Clinton, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. is a void. There is simply nothing there. The figure that emerges from Yesterday’s Man — Branko Marcetic’s biting profile of the former senator and vice president, and now presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — doesn’t have a transformative national vision or an eye-catching policy platform or even a particularly interesting personal backstory to sell. At some point in the mid-1970s, Biden decided that American elections were won and lost in the dead centre of the ideological spectrum — and that is precisely where he has stayed for the full span of his 50-year political career.
As Marcetic — a staff writer at Jacobin magazine — argues, being a centrist in American politics doesn’t make you a moderate. It just means that you’re prepared to strike legislative compromises with the hard-right, or with uniquely predatory forms of capital, in order to burnish your institutional credentials. Biden has done this time and time again in the US Senate, to the extent that ‘working across the aisle’ in a ‘bipartisan fashion’ is all that meaningfully exists of the 77-year-old’s political identity.
Some examples. In 1984, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s deregulatory frenzy, Biden sponsored a Senate amendment designed to limit public spending and cap the size of the federal deficit. In 1999, he voted to repeal Glass-Steagall, a key piece of Depression-era banking regulation loathed by the financial sector and free-market lobbyists. In 2005, he broke ranks with his own party to back a GOP bankruptcy bill that would ultimately triple student loan debt by locking graduates into oppressive repayment plans.
Biden doesn’t seem overly concerned with the human consequences of these grand unifying gestures. He was, for instance, a keen proponent of the War on Drugs in the 1980s and of the Violent Crime Act in the 1990s, both of which led to an explosion in the size of the US prison population and the consolidation of America’s — heavily racialized — carceral state.
But when he does feel moved to justify his enthusiasm for rightwing initiatives, he rationalizes them as necessary policy correctives for a slovenly and over-indulged electorate. “Too many people are finding it too easy to walk away from their legitimate obligations by filing for bankruptcy,” he said in 2005, in defence of the Republicans’ Main Street-destroying insolvency measure. “Generations have made welfare their way of life — this must end,” he remarked a decade earlier, after endorsing social security cuts being championed at the time by the oleaginous GOP congressman Newt Gingrich.
Marcetic views Biden a standard-bearer for the cringing weakness of progressive political culture in the US. In addition to being a fiscal hawk who has consistently pushed balanced budgets at the expense of ordinary Americans, Biden is a military one, too, with a steady track record of support for the use of US hard power abroad.
In the early 2000s, from his seat in the Senate, Biden led the liberal charge for the war in Iraq, repeatedly praising the Bush administration’s foreign policy decisions with heavy-handed displays of political fealty. “At each pivotal moment, [the president] has chosen a course of moderation and deliberation,” he said in late 2002, as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were visibly laying the groundwork for invasion. “I believe he will continue to do so.”
Arguably Biden’s most corrosive and unappealing feature is his belief that — by working alongside Republicans to implement Republican policies and satisfy Republican priorities — he is demonstrating his own essential decency as a national leader.
Biden has stuck so rigidly to this conceit for so long that, in 2003, he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of his late Senate colleague, the notorious segregationist and red-baiting Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. “Strom and I shared a life in the Senate for over 30 years,” Biden said, with standard, toe-curling sentimentality. “And it made a difference. I looked into his heart and I saw a man, a whole man.” (Biden delivered a similar tribute to John McCain in 2018, ten years after McCain had run a racist presidential campaign attempting to tie Barack Obama to “anti-American terrorism.”)
Marcetic doesn’t discuss Biden’s chances of winning the November general election in much detail: Yesterday’s Man was published before Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary contest in early April. But it’s safe to say he isn’t optimistic.
Not only does Biden look increasingly dazed on the debate stage and in the media spotlight, but his reputation as a straight-talking public servant, untainted by personal and professional scandal, is beginning to fray. Tara Reade, an ex-Senate staffer of Biden’s, claims he sexually assaulted her in a Capitol Hill hallway in 1993. To the extent that he has acknowledged Reade’s existence, Biden denies the allegation. Nonetheless, the story is rapidly gaining traction in US press coverage of the presidential race and will no doubt surface in Donald Trump’s November attack ads.
Biden’s electoral strategy, premised on the idea that “nothing will fundamentally change”, represents another glaring liability. Democratic tacticians hope to win over the same Republican suburbs that were meant to turn out for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but instead stayed loyal to Trump and the GOP. If they can’t, the success of Biden’s candidacy will rest on a cohort of young voters that, polls suggest, are either indifferent towards the former vice president or actively dislike him.
And yet, whether Biden actually makes it to the White House or not is somewhat beside the point. The smattering of policies he does have — on the environment, on healthcare and, now, on the COVID-19 crisis — are laughably insufficient for the challenges of our age. Worse still, as president, Biden would probably spend more time orchestrating performative displays of ideological bipartisanship than he would trying to change American society in any, even modestly positive, way. The results would be predictable: a further, radical extension of corporate power, the retrenchment of Republican interests in Congress, and, very probably, another hefty round of austerity cuts, paid for by the poorest people in America, after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. Joe Biden is the last, exhausted advocate of a political system emptied out by history. He might be better than Trump. But who isn’t?