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Joe Biden’s Transformative American Narrative

His political experience and personal losses turned him—improbably—into the right man for this moment.
March 18, 2021
Joe Biden’s Transformative American Narrative
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Joe Biden first became a senator in 1973; I published my first novel six years later. But not until 2020 did I reimagine him as the central figure in a nascent narrative of national redemption—the transformed protagonist bent on transforming his tarnished country.

This presentment of late-life heroics was hardly preordained. Witness Richard Ben Cramer’s matchless account of the 1988 presidential campaign. The fortysomething Biden emerges as likable and, in important ways, admirable—not least in his resolve to transcend the tragic loss of his first wife and infant daughter, compelling his daily commute between Washington and Delaware to care for two young sons.

But Cramer also portrays him as impulsive and preternaturally ambitious, less defined by principle or self-awareness than a love of center stage. Biden lacked money or an Ivy League pedigree; some perceived a driving need to prove himself which could undercut his equanimity and judgement.

Such failings are common enough. But age does not always change us for the better; instead of acquiring wisdom, we become blinkered distillations of our worst selves. Not Biden. Time seems to have settled his soul and amplified his strengths, including a rare ability to see and feel for others.

More surprising was a central feature of his third presidential campaign: the immense self-discipline which had enabled him to surmount a childhood stutter, but too often eluded the adult politician whose verbal and rhetorical carelessness undermined his desire to be respected for his intellectual capacity and seriousness of purpose—and, critically, his two prior runs for president.

That this aspect of Biden gravely misrepresented his capacities was captured thirty-plus years ago by his opposition to Robert Bork. Having abandoned his first presidential campaign, Biden immersed himself in the nuances of constitutional law. His sustained and pointed interrogation illuminated Bork’s judicial philosophy and, quite possibly, changed the outcome. Whatever one’s viewpoint, Biden transcended the performative rhetoric and simplistic questioning which typifies such hearings—then, and now.

Nonetheless, the condescension endured. When Barack Obama tapped Biden as his running mate, many saw him as safe enough for second place: Middle Class Joe, a gaffe-prone but experienced ticket-balancer who had outlived his ultimate ambition.

So it might have remained. In 2016—pressured by those who saw Hillary Clinton as a sounder choice, and gutted by the death of his cherished older son—Biden chose not to undertake what, to many, would already have seemed a too-belated final quest.

Then two things happened. Clinton lost a race Biden might well have won, and Trump commenced the morally deformed and racially corrosive presidency inherent in his callous words after Charlottesville—which, by offending Biden to the core, helped spur his final run for president.

There is poetry in this—a kind of political and personal symmetry. The contrast with Trump underscored the qualities in Biden too often obscured by decades of stereotyping pegged to his faults.

Biden cared deeply about the travails of others. He had the capacity to grow. He wasn’t an ideologue, but he had an animating idea—a belief in institutions of constitutional democracy, and the comity and restraint essential to preserving them.

He personified the average American, but came armed with the extraordinary resilience which had enabled him to surmount the deaths of those he loved, and to nurture those who survived. Tempered by time, he inspired trust.

But time also created difficulties: Biden was older than any serious candidate for president before him—spawning worries about his endurance and capacity, not to mention the zeal of his constituency. The early primaries only deepened these concerns. He finished fourth in Iowa caucuses, fifth in New Hampshire, and a distant second to Bernie Sanders in Nevada until, thrown a lifeline by James Clyburn, he won his first presidential primary ever—in pivotal South Carolina.

Rescued from near-oblivion, Biden emerged rejuvenated. He ran the table in the primaries thereafter; unified his fractious party; put on a well-conceived virtual convention; and chose the first woman of color as his vice-presidential nominee.

Biden had come perilously close to a last, humiliating defeat. But as I wrote in 2020: “Character is, indeed, fate. So there is something both Shakespearean and viscerally elegant about the redemptive turn of history’s wheel: the man poised to depose Trump—if only he can—is Joe Biden.”

Knowing that Trump’s campaign would magnify any missteps to brutal effect, Biden conjured reserves of discipline foreign to prior campaigns—sticking to well-chosen themes with unwonted brevity while largely avoiding verbal miscues, meanderings, embellishments, and mistakes of fact. In the crucible of greatest peril, the first debate, it was Trump’s performance which raised questions—less about his age than his sanity.

From then through Election Day, Biden approximated Hemingway’s ideal of grace under pressure. In retrospect, it seems clear that Biden was the only candidate who could have beaten Trump—and did so, at least in part, because his persona promised the calm and seasoned leadership whose absence had made COVID so gratuitously lethal. But Biden’s comportment in the weeks thereafter rose to statesmanlike—or, more aptly, presidential.

Faced with Trump’s increasingly frantic and destructive efforts to overturn the election based on preposterous claims of fraud, Biden evinced a steady confidence that the heart of our democracy—the honest counting of votes as predicate for a peaceful transition power—would prevail. Even amid the wreckage of January 6, Biden blended moral repugnance with an insistence that America was, indeed, better than this.

This proved vital. Biden assumed the presidency buoyed by a burgeoning faith in this seemingly familiar man who, tested by events, had summoned his best self.

He inherited a country wounded by a deadly pandemic; an epochal economic crisis; pervasive income and wealth disparities; systemic racial inequities; and a corrosive distrust which had turned our polity on itself. Trump had inflicted mass exhaustion—in his impermeable pathology, he had made the presidency about his grievances, resentments, and loathing for anyone who threatened the alternate reality in which he strutted the stage alone.

In his wake, Biden was not only the right man—he was necessary. It is not simply that he possesses empathy, or has a bone-deep sense of loss, endurance, and recovery—though both are essential. He has a keenly honed instinct for the political sweet spot, and the popular mood.

He understands that a weary citizenry requires a measured and competent president who treats them as adults whose lives matter and whose contributions count, rather than a mass audience for personal gratification. He appreciates that he needs us to succeed, and that we need him at his best.

His best is considerable. To a marked degree, Biden has never been polarizing—either among his peers, or the electorate at large. He eschews cultural divisiveness. Where Trump was forever victimized and vengeful, Biden forswears grudges. “You know that old saying,” he has remarked. “‘Seek revenge, you’ve got two victims.’ You’re one of them. I’ve never done that because it’s just not worth the effort.”

Biden reminds us that the term “professional politician” is, at its apex, a commendation rather than an epithet. Indeed, he is the ultimate argument against term limits—thirty-six years as a senator, and eight as vice president, have prepared him for challenges unparalleled since FDR’s first term.

He has assembled a diverse and well-qualified cabinet and built a smart and seasoned White House team seemingly short of the rivalries or hubris which have hamstrung prior administrations. He understands that to move government requires knowing where the levers of power are, and working with people and institutions which cannot be changed.

He appreciates that the presidential pulpit is a resource too valuable to squander. In contrast to Trump’s suffocating omnipresence, Biden doesn’t need attention for its own sake—he wants results, and speaks to us of larger purposes.

His central purpose is the reanimation of governance to retrieve us from of our slough of despond, and to restore America as a hopeful and inclusive place. To that end, he has reinvented himself as the times demand—embracing a progressive vision which invests in our common future.

In two months, he has increased the supply of COVID vaccines; dramatically accelerated vaccinations; and substituted science for superstition. Faced with uniform Republican opposition, he skillfully navigated the crosscurrents between his party’s moderates and progressives, enabling the compromises necessary to enact $1.9 trillion rescue plan which gives immediate relief to struggling Americans while establishing the most sweeping anti-poverty program since the 1960s.

The end of Biden’s presidential narrative has yet to be written, and he faces graver challenges yet. But surely the most foolish dictum ever uttered by an esteemed novelist belongs to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.” For America is a land of second acts, and second chances, and Joe Biden’s second act may be our last, best chance for renewal.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.