Can Biden go the distance?

Can Biden go the distance?

Can Biden go the distance?
Repeatedly asked if he wants to be president, Joe Biden has responded that Trump cannot be re-elected. (AFP)

Aside from the easygoing demeanor and friendly uncle-in-chief charm, the American public never could quite place “Cup O’ Joe” Biden’s politics. Aside from the fact he served diligently as Barack Obama’s steady vice president and spent 40 years as a representative of the leafy Atlantic coast seat of Delaware, Biden’s convictions remained unclear. The onset of the Donald Trump phenomenon, however, seems to have stirred the veteran campaigner. For his America of fairness, ideals and integrity to be at risk from the most divisive White House in a generation has been enough to stir him from retirement. However, as the campaign moves on, it is not entirely clear whether the famously loquacious former vice president actually wants the top job or rather whether circumstances have set him on this course.

Repeatedly asked if he wants to be president, Biden has responded that Trump cannot be re-elected. Whereas, as in the words of the New York Times, Biden “began his running-for-president routine more than three decades ago,” the promises of previous campaigns have given way to a do-or-die approach in which Trump’s re-election must be avoided at all costs. To Democrats, conscious of splitting the vote, the six-times-elected Biden has proven likeability across the broad spectrum of the party. Faced with the potential instability of another Trump administration, Biden has been positioned as a familiar and approachable candidate. Whereas supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want to overhaul the status quo, Biden’s thoroughly middle class brand (he was famously one of the poorest members of congress) appeals to older voters and organized labor groups and African-Americans — traditional Democratic constituencies. Polls taken last week show that Biden, even with his gaffes on the campaign trail, is the safest bet for Democrats to ensure Trump doesn’t pull off a 2016 repeat. This undoubtedly plays into Biden’s argument about being the most electable Democrat overall, something that is increasing his advantage as, this time, voters are prizing electability more than usual.

If Biden’s great talent is his ability to connect with real people, his plain talking manner is also a vulnerability

Zaid M. Belbagi

For those arguing that his campaign offers little more than name recognition, Biden’s aides have been at great pains to outline his vision for America: To lead the battle for its soul, to restore the middle class and to unite the country. These noble ambitions are a lot more profound given the divisive nature of the current White House. To those questioning why the 76-year-old chose to cut short his hard-won retirement, the event that woke him from his slumber is most telling. Biden was among the first to respond to Trump’s failure to condemn violent white nationalists in Charlottesville. Biden said the president did too little to uphold “the American creed of decency and honor” and that, by ignoring the racist clashes, had found himself on the side of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists. Within this context, the president’s ad hominem attacks of “Crazy Joe Biden” or “Sleepy Joe” — unprecedented remarks regarding a former vice president by a sitting president — only serve to illustrate how far this White House has strayed from political norms.

If Biden’s great talent is his ability to connect with real people, his plain talking manner is also a vulnerability. Infamously gaffe-prone, he has mistakenly offended others. Last month, he said he misspoke when he told the Asian and Latino Coalition (an important voter group for the Democrats), “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” Similarly, his reputation as a fiery and effective speaker is sometimes hard to gauge, as the veteran politician often loses focus and can seem to prefer unscripted conversation instead of remaining on message. The command of language he used to make long and entertaining speeches to Congress must give way to more manageable communication, as the smartphone generation increasingly lacks the focus and ability to process political diatribes.

In any case, whether or not the man who will be 78 if and when he takes office can curry favor with younger voters, the most experienced of all the candidates brings a reservoir of understanding that will enable him to walk across divides, not only within his party, but also across the country. The Trump administration has grossly changed attitudes toward the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the influence of autocrats on American democracy and indeed the normalization of prejudice across everyday life. A Biden administration, though he has repeatedly stated it would focus on unity, would also need to work on the wider state of the nation. An experienced candidate with the ability to reach out to people is what is needed to patch together what is an increasingly divided union.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

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