When most folks think of the former vice president Joe Biden, a lot of them think of the late football legend, Joe Namath. But some think of the late-life victories and tragedies, of all the campaign speeches and essays and speeches, of a deeply personal public service. Some think of his time as a lawmaker and then senator. That’s not completely out of place, because Biden deserves credit for a new tradition in American politics: suggesting that government isn’t perfect, but its interventions actually did something good for a lot of people. I worked in the Biden wing of the Senate for a lot of his time in office, and I always think of him as the most accomplished politician I’ve ever worked with. The thing that impressed me the most was his willingness to take credit, and to admit that things didn’t always work, even though the details of the various policies were always decades in the making.
I think Biden will be remembered more for many of his political achievements than many of his personal ones. But I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it means to be a politician during the Trump era; about the lesson that I took from the Biden era. And I found that it wasn’t just how Biden felt about the public interest that made him remarkable. It was how he had to feel, in order to succeed.
His agenda and his language were defensive. He was careful not to offend anyone, to insist he knew what the other person was talking about, to keep his criticism vague, to never talk down to people and always attribute their defects to “they” rather than “I.” He was determined not to appear self-indulgent or grandiose or satisfied with his own opinions; if people offended him, it was because he didn’t hear their complaints or explanations. He was only ever offering practical suggestions to people working in his political system, and was never willing to endorse or acquiesce to anything that would undermine its effectiveness. (Alas, in a way, the shying away from the truth was a cynical calculation aimed at protecting him from anyone who might actually be capable of taking advantage of the same system, and leaving him open to accusations that he was somehow unreliable and weak, just a man who didn’t know how to play politics anymore.)
That didn’t mean that Biden wouldn’t think about politics and government policy in the abstract, in terms of generalities, or in extremely highfalutin generalities – because he loved policy as a human being, and he obviously was very familiar with many of the policy problems. But on a day-to-day level, and particularly at the most detailed level, he thought about politics and government like someone working in a dangerous or military environment. He knew what had to be protected, and what could be bargained away, and what was worth protecting, and protecting it through alliances with other people, on the side of the national interest. He never talked about them as if they were hard and boring subjects that he couldn’t give a damn about, or couldn’t care about enough to learn more about in order to change policy, or couldn’t care enough to do it for a paycheck. He always held them up to the fullest standard of conduct and competence – because they were.
But at the same time, while he was never going to back down from a fight or an argument, he would never flinch from signing on to a plan of action to protect the public good. He would only find himself looking like a hypocrite, for example, if he insisted that we weren’t at war, and then used the public in ways that seemed to suggest otherwise. In Biden’s view, you could never betray the public trust by using them to beat a fight for tactical advantage; this was fundamentally illegitimate, and the next election was what mattered. It always sounded like a gamble that might pay off, but Biden worked to make sure that he didn’t feel like he was always playing for the other team.
Of course, nobody would accuse Biden of being a perfect politician. He didn’t know how to work to win, and sometimes it looked like he couldn’t overcome his personal stubbornness, or turned his back on things when he should have, and tried to slide through the system by promising what the other side couldn’t, and then doing exactly what they wanted to do anyway, even if it’s wrong. Biden was known for a certain personality trait, which is that he didn’t believe in yourself, because it was too hard to be completely consistent. After all, you can’t be both “You, Me, America” and “Me, Me, Me” all the time, and Biden wasn’t going to be that kind of politician, either.