Joe Biden did not quicken many pulses during his long march to the presidency. It was Donald Trump’s job to supply the energy to Biden’s campaign, just a shade more than he supplied to his own. Democrats last March, after months of fidgety comparison shopping, made Biden the guess-he’ll-do nominee. In November, it seems evident to everyone but Trump the general electorate has made Biden the fine-let’s-give-him-a-try president.
Now that his lifetime ambition has been achieved, the question is whether the former vice president can vault above adequacy to something more momentous: Can Joe Biden be a great president?
Yes. He has a pathway to do so, one that would reflect the experience and values of a lifetime (he turns 78 in two weeks) and a half-century in the public arena. But an understanding of Biden’s pathway to greatness starts with an understanding of the usual pathways that are not open to him.
There is no objective definition, of course, of presidential greatness. But there is a reasonable consensus among students of the office about what it generally involves. It is a presidency whose influence outlasts the occupant’s tenure—changing the way people view the office, and, more importantly, changing the way people view the country.
For nearly a century, since Franklin D. Roosevelt created the modern presidency—in which the executive branch dominates the federal government and the occupant of the Oval Office dominates national consciousness—there have been certain signatures of the most consequential presidents.
FDR before he took office was dismissed as “an amiable boy scout” by Walter Lippmann, the preeminent columnist of the day, but once there he achieved greatness by combining a capacious new vision of government’s power to help ordinary Americans with a radiant personal presence. One has to squint hard to imagine Biden projecting that kind of outsize aura.
John F. Kennedy used good looks, a natural wit, eloquent speeches and the new medium of television to change expectations again. The modern presidency was now supposed to fuse power with glamour and grace. Biden’s fit-but-aging frame and sentences that sometimes wander into banality and sometimes wander nowhere at all do not make the JFK model promising for him.
Ronald Reagan, of course, was a polished presence, but his outsize presidency was achieved through something else: A body of conservative ideas that he had spent decades evangelizing for, and which echoed for at least a couple decades after he left the presidency. Biden spent 36 years in the Senate known as an energetic progressive legislator. But his ideas were practical and tailored to the moment, not the product of an ideological innovator.
Biden’s path to greatness, by contrast, depends on him making a virtue of the things he is not—and harnessing what he genuinely is to a larger governing strategy.
Great presidents have an assignment from history. The lack of charisma as conventionally defined, the lack of intense ideological fixations—the lack of egotistical monomania as possessed by many presidents and preeminently by the current one—could be signal advantages for Biden with his historic assignment: To drain American politics of its malice and addiction to conspiracy theory and restore confidence that public life can work in some approximately normal way.
The modern presidency, from FDR on, has promoted the notion of leadership as cult of personality. Under Trump, this phenomenon reached its apogee—by turns comic and malignant. It is simply inconceivable to imagine Biden saying, “I alone can fix it.” It is even more so to imagine him privately thinking it. In many cases, a long career in Congress has been a disadvantage to people seeking the presidency; they end up thinking and talking like legislators. In this context, it will be an asset. Biden naturally defaults to “we” rather than “me.”
If Biden establishes himself as ideological broker, rather than ideologue, if he restores in Washington an instinct for shared responsibility rather than an instinct for remorseless conflict, that would indeed be a formula for a great presidency. He would change the way people think of the office, and change the way Americans look at their country, in ways that would outlast his tenure.
Sidney Milkis, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said the greatest presidents are “at the center of developing a new political order,” one built around “a new philosophy, a new set of institutional arrangements, a new set of policies.” Biden has a chance to do this, Milkis says, by inventing a new model of the presidency for the context he inherits: “Trump has shown us how dangerous this cult of personality is, and Biden can be looked at as an antidote to that. Enough of the country is looking for leadership that would be normal, would be focused on building a coalition.”
Biden’s potential for presidential greatness in part comes from his longevity. He has served so long that he has managed to escape the psychic weight of predecessors. Early in his career, his eagerness to emulate the JFK model of eloquent and inspirational presidents that it led to an embarrassing setback. He was shooed out of the 1988 presidential race, with considerable mockery, after revelations that he was cribbing speech lines from British politician Neil Kinnock. Three decades later, Biden at last is liberated from the need to project as anything other than himself.
Though not a dazzling theatrical presence, Biden in personal encounters has a gift for intimacy and personal connection, said journalist and presidential historian Jonathan Alter, who reported on Biden for his books on Barack Obama’s presidency. “He’s comfortable talking to Mitch McConnell and AOC,” Alter said.
Alter recently published “His Very Best,” a history of Jimmy Carter, a president who, like Biden today, was in position to revive the country in part by demystifying the presidency and liberating it from the neurosis and agitated politics of a recent predecessor (Richard Nixon, in Carter’s case). “Carter’s job was to be a healer and to be a healer he had to approach the presidency with some modesty.”
A bad economy and poor congressional relations thwarted Carter’s presidency. (Biden likely won’t have the latter problem though he may be plagued by the former, depending on pandemic recovery.) Along the way, Alter said, Carter produced a robust legislative record. These weren’t sweeping New Deal or Great Society packages, but a series of “singles and doubles” that Biden would do well to emulate, Alter said, adding that to do so Biden will have to keep the purists in his own party at bay and make the case for progressive incrementalism.
Singles and doubles don’t normally equate to presidential greatness, but after a generation of Washington dysfunction they would indeed be a legacy that echoes.
Speaking of progressive incrementalism, the prospect of an energetic, loquacious, sometimes undisciplined but undeniably well-intentioned liberal in the White House raises an arresting possibility. The Biden presidency may well be our chance to find out what would have happened if Hubert Humphrey reached the presidency. Like Biden, he was a creature of the Senate who became vice president and had fixed his eyes on the presidency since he was a young man. Unlike Biden, who appears to have narrowly won the presidency, Humphrey lost an agonizingly close race to Nixon.
The Watergate scandal and national trauma of the Nixon years showed that the nation could have done worse—did do worse—than elevating Humphrey. Now, in 2020, Biden raises the prospect that the country’s politics could do better than it has done lately.
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