Last night’s presidential ‘debate’ disgraced the country. Those who tuned in learned nothing. They already knew that President Trump is a bully and a liar. The 45th president was only true to himself. Meanwhile, Joe Biden couldn’t speak for more than a few seconds before being talked over. No wonder he couldn’t articulate his plans to re-make America.
Still, the debate reinforced stark contrasts. The 2020 election is not so much a contest between candidates Trump and Biden as it is between demagoguery and democracy, lies and honesty, insensitivity and empathy, coarseness and civility, lawlessness and law, idolatry and respect, authoritarianism and liberalism, today and tomorrow, sickness and health.
This shouldn’t be a close election. Yet it may be. That is because America is deeply divided. The divisions are older than the republic itself, but in their current manifestation they have become akin to competing tribal beliefs that inhibit the ability of either side to appreciate the legitimate concerns of the other.
And along comes Joe Biden. He is not the ideal candidate. He is a journeyman politician, whose lifelong struggles with a stutter make him a challenged orator. He comes with the baggage of a long track record. During the Democratic primaries, he looked tired. At times, he seemed at best everyone’s second choice.
But like Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, Americans recognize that Joe is inherently a decent man. His values are beyond question. He is a man of integrity.
Joe also connects with ordinary people. That is particularly important during an era when connectivity is, for many, limited to fleeting images on a screen.
Even before last night’s sorrowful debate, many pundits lamented the choice. Where is American leadership when it is most needed? Why couldn’t the Democrats offer a more compelling choice in 2020?
We forget, however, that transcendent, or even great leaders are very rare. And not just in the US. Think of the United Kingdom in the postwar era. Or Japan. Germany, perhaps, has had more luck with the likes of Adenauer, Schmidt, Kohl and Merkel. But that is truly exceptional. You can’t put a list like that together for France, Italy, Spain or Canada.
And perhaps the US does not need a great leader right now, or at least of the type we romanticize. Joe Biden, if he wins, will probably be a transitional president. He knows that. His job will be to begin a process of healing and unifying, not to finish it.
If the polls are right, Americans increasingly get it, too. So do Democrats. They could easily have lurched to the left in the primaries, but they seem to have instinctively known that today’s American malaise calls for a centrist, someone who is pragmatic and not ideological, who can begin to build bridges, real and metaphorical. They want someone to defuse, not to ignite.
Nor is that surprising. In some real ways, President Obama failed to live up to his billing. In 2008 he was the ‘shiny new object’—gifted, smart and hard working. But he did not achieve as much as his supporters hoped, partly because of the hand he was dealt, and partly because expectations were too high.
Under Obama the scars of American history began to re-open, blister and fester. Obama can’t be faulted for that, much less for the historic divide in America that began with slavery, was manifest in the rivalries of the country’s founding fathers, reached a bloody climax in the Civil War and has never been fully closed in the ensuing 160 years.
Yet the Democrats who chose Joe Biden as their nominee decided that, this time, they really didn’t want another Barack Obama. They and now the broader electorate have set their sights differently, perhaps lower, with more realistic aims suited to today’s challenges. Rather than hope, what they really want is decency, civility and understanding. They want change, but in a non-radical, centrist way. For them, the pandemic is metaphorical as well as real: Americans want to heal.
Few are under illusions of a quick fix. But Americans are only looking for a fresh start, not a finish. In Joe Biden, if the polls are correct, they have identified the candidate to begin the process. And then he will turn over the reins to someone else. With the grace befitting a man of his character.
Americans have always retained faith that their common aim is to build a more perfect union. At times, they took up that task inspired by the soaring rhetoric of Kennedy and Obama, or the sunny optimism of Reagan. But Americans are also pragmatic, level-headed. They know that today the country needs more action than rhetoric, more empathy than romantic imagery.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. ‘Uncle Joe’, centered and centrist, understanding and unflappable, decent and democratic, civil and civilian is just what America and the world needs in the 2020’s.