Joe Biden has no trouble lingering in place, wherever he is, especially if there’s a point he wants to finish – or start. Generally it does not matter how many people are prodding him along or waiting out in the cold. And it seemed important to Biden that I hear what he was talking about right now before we finished.
The former vice-president was seated in the back of a black SUV, idling for a few minutes on a frigid Iowa morning before a rally in Indianola. It was a Saturday in the middle of January, 16 days before the Iowa caucuses. Biden’s silvery blue eyes looked glassy, maybe from the dry heat of the car or the daily deluge of his campaign. Already today, he had spoken at an education forum and also attended a finance committee meeting back at the Marriott Hotel in Des Moines. He spent the previous two days in Texas, where he addressed a mostly black gathering at the National Baptist Convention and attended meetings, receptions, a fundraiser.
He remained stranded in Houston after a snowstorm kept him out of Iowa, forcing him to cancel his Friday events in the state. He arrived in Des Moines the night before. Biden, who is 77, looked a bit worn down, and you couldn’t help wondering if there were times – like now – that made him question why exactly he was putting himself through a presidential campaign, for the third time, after a perfectly distinguished career.
In an alternate universe, you can picture Biden as a retiree down in Clearwater, Florida, aviators folded into the collar of his polo shirt, catching his baseball team, the Philadelphia Phillies, at spring training. You can see him slipping a couple of bucks into the tip jar at Starbucks, shaking a few hands, and if, say, some dude comes up to him and says something snide, maybe about his son Hunter, you can imagine Biden pointing into the man’s chest, telling him to show some damn respect – and then grabbing three Splendas for his wife, “Jilly”, waiting out in the car.
And yet a few weeks before the caucuses, here Biden was in Iowa, nestled in the warm car. On the drive, he talked about his campaign, which had endured a procession of dubious assessments in the media over nearly a year: a running catalogue of “weak front-runner” stories, too-old stories, sluggish-crowds stories – even as polls consistently showed him in the lead, both nationally and in key states. Unlike his more ideological rivals, “movement” candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden does not have an easily identifiable “why” associated with his endeavour – other than the necessity of a Donald Trump defeat. In all likelihood, Biden told me, he would not be running if it were, say, President Mitt Romney seeking re-election this year.
“My dad used to kid,” Biden told me. “He said: ‘Joey, don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.’ ”
“There’s just an awful lot of this that is looking through the prism of what happens if we get four more years of Trump,” Biden said. I had asked whether that rationale was enough. Shouldn’t a presidential campaign have a mission statement that goes beyond the singular awfulness of the incumbent? Perhaps not, in the minds of voters and the view of the candidate himself. “My dad used to kid,” Biden told me. “He said: ‘Joey, don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.’ ”
As much as any campaign in recent memory, Biden’s has been defined by the alternative. The perennially left-for-dead former vice-president is not a socialist, and he is not Trump. He is Joe Biden, the long-time senator and two-term vice-president and elder statesman with a bunch of places that bear his name in the state of Delaware. People know him, for better and worse. Again and again, Biden has said that he is best equipped to confine Trump’s presidency to a one-term “aberration”, as opposed to the downward transformation that he says will occur if Trump is re-elected.
“You know, I’ve been around a long time, that’s the bad news.” Biden told me. “But the good news is, I’ve also been around a long time.” He is fond of these bad news/good news constructions. “The bad news is that everybody knows me,” starts another one. “The good news is everybody knows me.”
And this typically segues to a point both simple and foundational about Biden’s campaign: survival. He is still sitting here, still the frontrunner, despite everything – despite himself. “I’ve taken it now for eight months,” he said. Through that “it”, Biden could account for any number of doomsday predictions and things that felt fateful in the moment. Supposedly Kamala Harris “destroyed” him in one debate mid-2019, with a sound bite critiquing his position on school bussing more than four decades ago (a position that, to some eyes, was not dissimilar to hers). Then Julián Castro crushed him in another, with a slap about his memory. What was that about again? Where are they now? (For her part, Harris dropped out of the race in December.)
“I’m still here,” Biden said. “And I’m still winning.” (This was before the voting got underway in Iowa, where he was to receive a “gut punch,” finishing fourth behind Pete Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren, in some order.) He wanted to make sure I got that point about his ability to endure. That he was still here. Let the rest of it swirl. People were holding signs, standing out in the cold, waiting for him to emerge. Twitter was blowing up over some fresh attack on Biden by the Sanders campaign.
Reporters were looking for comment. Sanders had also been fighting with Warren, over whether Sanders once told her that a woman could not win the presidency. The Senate impeachment trial would start four days later in Washington, sidelining three of Biden’s main rivals – Senators Sanders, Warren and Amy Klobuchar, who would have to serve as jurors there. (In early February, Trump was acquitted.)
At the heart of that trial were President Trump’s efforts to strong-arm the president of Ukraine into announcing an investigation into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, whom his father refers to as “my only surviving son”. Led by Eric Trump, the president’s son, Trump supporters were now chanting for Hunter to be “locked up”. Some Republicans were calling for his testimony.
“Why is Donald Trump doing this?” the Biden campaign asked in a video about Ukraine. “He knows he can’t beat Joe Biden.”
Biden, meanwhile, would stay here, telling me that a bunch of “smart-as-hell people” have been wrong about this race from the start. “I’ve had a couple of reporters say to me, they’re kind of surprised – ‘You’re still standing,’ ” Biden said. “They’re not being wiseguys.”
Biden finally opened the door. “Here we go, sir.” A member of his advance team touched his shoulder, directed him to the entrance and pointed to the ground. “Be careful, it’s slippery,” a woman greeting him said. “Treacherous.” His staff gave him leeway, a few feet, while Biden walked ahead. They addressed him as “sir”. Strangers showed no such deference, running up and hugging him as if he were the genial uncle who just showed up to dinner. “Hey, man,” Biden said, shaking a hand. Everyone is “man”, even toddlers, some women. They call him “Joe”.
“I made it, I’m here,” Biden said. “Where you want me?”
Joe Biden at a rally in Iowa earlier this month.Credit:Getty Images
Biden’s campaign operates out of a vast open office spread over a single floor in a Philadelphia tower, not far from the Amtrak station. Like most headquarters of high-profile campaigns today, Biden’s has no visible markings or signage outside, the better to avoid unwanted protest or scrutiny. The three security guards in the lobby said they had no idea that the Biden for President nerve centre was located in the building. A campaign spokesman requested that I not even identify the floor occupied by its headquarters.
The Biden hierarchy comprises a fairly conventional mix of established Democratic operatives, White House veterans and Biden loyalists. They tend to be older, male and more than a bit swampy (consultants, the stray lobbyist and the kind of people who appear regularly on US cable TV). Several have been advising Biden for years and are considered “family”. Exceptions include Anita Dunn, a relative newcomer to Biden’s circle, who is a well-known Washington media strategist and a former top aide with both Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and Bill Bradley’s insurgent effort against Al Gore in 2000. Kate Bedingfield, the campaign’s deputy manager and communications director, speaks to Biden several times a day and has been entrusted as much as anyone with disseminating his message, his promise to “restore the soul of America”. The slogan was recently painted on the Biden campaign bus, replacing “No Malarkey” (the campaign remains firmly opposed to malarkey, Bedingfield insisted to me).
Early on, when it was clear that Biden would be attacked as the rickety embodiment of a bygone Democratic establishment, the campaign faced a dilemma. Biden could try to win over the burn-it-down activists and young voters who were said to be taking over the party; he could lurch leftward, sign on to progressive preoccupations like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and basically try to remake himself in the image of 30-year-old Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the person of a septuagenarian with a hair transplant.
Or, as the campaign chose to do, it could proceed from the assumption that any attempt at a makeover would fool no one. Biden would never be some ideological high priest who would dazzle the “smart-as-hell people” on Twitter. No matter what he did, the hot-takers would declare Biden to be fatally out of touch, too old, too moderate, too tired and not angry enough. He talked too much, touched too much and went on about things like “civility” and “bipartisanship” and “my old friend Teddy Kennedy” and “my old friend Bob Dole”.
Biden wanted no part of some on-the-fly repackaging. “There were a lot of people who thought we needed to tack to the prevailing notion of the energised left,” Dunn told me. “There still are a lot of those people.” Instead, Biden and his team concluded that voters knew who the candidate was and thought he was a decent guy. He was maybe easy to roll your eyes at, but he was difficult to dislike. More to the point, he could do the job, and that might be good enough.
An aura of fatalism runs through the Biden enterprise, starting with the candidate. He has already endured five decades of political travail and far worse from life. “I could drop dead tomorrow,” Biden told an Iowa crowd in January, as he often does at his rallies – a curious line from someone trying to allay fears about his age. Either this will work out for him or it will not. But no matter whom the Democrats nominate, he says, they will come under merciless attack. He has already, and he is still here.
The other foundational question for the campaign was how much to talk about Trump himself. After the 2018 mid-term elections, an assumption took hold among Democrats that they should focus on core issues like healthcare and climate change and limit discussion about Trump. “And Biden would say, ‘No, that’s not why I’m running,’ ” says Mike Donilon, the campaign’s chief strategist. “This is a battle for the soul of the country and the threat that Trump poses to it.”
There’s nothing about Biden’s operation that seeks to shift any paradigms; there is no sleek “theory of the case” or big revolutionary idea or historic first riding on him. If there is an audacious notion around the campaign, it is Biden’s willingness to talk about unifying the country. “It’s actually a very radical idea about how to win,” Dunn says. She contrasts this with the prevailing wisdom that candidates “should only focus on their base, people they agree with”.
Photo illustrations by Delcan & Co/The New York Times.Credit:
In terms of campaign strategy, Biden’s team envisions his path to the nomination as fairly straightforward. After first playing down his chances in Iowa, Biden spent a great deal of time in the state over the past month. What struck me during this time, both at Biden’s appearances and from talking to dozens of the people who showed up at his rallies, is the extent to which he is running, unabashedly, as more of a transitional figure than a transformational one – someone who can help lead the country out of this period of turmoil and division.
Biden’s emphasis on restoring “plain decency” and “respect” to the presidency is central to his appeal in Iowa, says Tom Vilsack, the state’s former governor and a visible Biden surrogate here. No one is going to “out-anger” Trump, Vilsack told me, but that’s not what people want. “They just want someone they can be proud of, someone they can say to your kids, ‘Hey, that’s the president, go shake his hand.’ ”
Biden told me he did not buy the conceit that the Democratic Party shifted irreversibly to the left after 2016. “It’s the thing that I never quite understand,” he said. “I’ve never seen any hard data that relates to that.”
In fact, a majority of Democrats who won congressional seats in 2018 were more mainstream, centrist candidates who had far more in common with 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney than with any member of the so-called squad of progressive congresswomen. If this dynamic returns in 2020, it might just be that Biden, past his prime, could be a decent fit for this moment. If not, it would be difficult to overstate the degree to which the Biden campaign is relying on his support among African-American voters, to protect against poor showings in the whiter precincts of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Biden holds natural appeal to African-American voters, among whom he is exceedingly well known and appreciated for his close association with Obama. But Kate Bedingfield told me the depth of Biden’s support among African-Americans goes well beyond the former president. She cited his work as a public defender, his efforts in the Senate to re-authorise the Voting Rights Act and his long relationship with the African-American community in Delaware, in addition to Biden’s expansive network of relationships with black political leaders across the country.
But Biden acknowledges that many people have doubted whether this affinity would still endure. “I remember,” he said, “I will not mention the reporter’s name, but a very bright African-American reporter from a major outlet.” Biden went on to share that she told him that she had visited Delaware – which he served as a senator for 36 years – and was surprised how popular he remained in the black community there. She was amazed, Biden said, adding that he himself was amazed that she was amazed. “I’m like, Why would they like this old white guy, you know what I mean?”
Biden's events can be sedate affairs compared with the more rollicking gatherings for Sanders, Warren and Trump. They typically begin with someone leading the room in a recital of the Pledge of Allegiance and maybe a prayer. The young field organiser assigned to the area will then get up, say why he or she likes Biden and urge people to get involved. The main program often follows an unorthodox format whereby a supporter offers a testimonial to Biden and introduces him; the former vice-president then speaks for a half-hour or so before, in many cases, turning the floor over to another speaker to bring things to a close while he sits quietly in the audience.
“Folks, this ain’t nostalgia, we’re at a breaking point,” Biden will often say, meaning the country’s political divisions that now threaten the “basic decency” of its political discourse. At the Iowa events I attended in January, Biden looked fit and rested after a few days off between Christmas and New Year’s. He moved easily, not so much the man in a hurry that he once was. His game-show smile looks as mirror-honed as ever, but it somehow appeared looser than it used to. Age and circumstance seem to have unburdened Biden of the desperate edge he once brought to pursuing the White House.
I asked him about this last August, following a small rally the south-central Iowa town Prole. “The longer I’ve been around, the less that appeals to me,” Biden told me, referring to the day-to-day weight of being president. “I’ve watched up close and personal what eight years in the White House is like.”
Of course, running for the job is its own special crucible. At his first rally in 2020, held at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, in eastern Iowa, Biden appeared subdued at the beginning, as if he needed to gear back up. He started his stump speech but then was distracted by the sight of a Yankees cap in the crowd.
“Man, down my way it’s hard to root for the Yankees,” Biden said. Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Biden spent part of his childhood, used to be the home of the Yankees’ triple-A ball club. “Everyone thinks Scranton’s nearer to Philadelphia,” Biden said. “It’s almost closer to New York. And if you wanted to eat at my grand-pop’s house, you had to root for the Yankees.” But then he married a Philly girl – “Jilly” – and he had to convert. No joke. “They’re kind of serious fans,” Biden said.
He appeared to be tiring of this story but also bored by the prospect of returning to another prepared speech. Then he rallied. “I was hospitalised for a while,” he said, as a result of a cranial aneurysm he suffered in 1988 that nearly killed him. “So, when I walked out with a shaved head, I put on a baseball cap that my brother-in-law brought down,” Biden went on. “It was a Yankees hat. And the press started taking pictures of me.” Oh, the hate mail. “One guy said, ‘No wonder they had to go in twice; they couldn’t find a brain the first time,’ ” Biden said. Everyone laughed. Biden’s got a billion stories like this. “At any rate, good to be back in Iowa,” he said.
As a candidate, late-stage Biden has little in common with the impassioned orator of his younger days. He starts out quiet and eventually settles into a more conversational mode. He is, as ever, prone to meandering, abrupt asides (“I can’t sing worth a damn”) and frequent stumbles, though they are almost instantly forgotten. “This isn’t about me, just because I’m running,” Biden tells his crowds. “This is about you.” Candidates are always pushing this line, which you can usually discard as peak malarkey. But after attending a few dozen Biden events, I’ve come around somewhat to the idea that maybe this really isn’t about Joe Biden, his well-known strengths and weaknesses. It’s as much about Trump.
Biden’s is a kind of musty revival tour through big swaths of the country populated by people (often older, rural) whom the media tends to ignore. He was never going to be an anointed cool kid, like the 78-year-old Sanders – fresh off a heart attack – who around this time was being feted at a rally in Venice Beach with his trophy endorser, Ocasio-Cortez. Biden’s supporters tend not to speak of Biden as some kind of political cult leader or as the face of a “movement”. But they are happy he is still here and, mostly, just want an end to the madness of the Trump era. They seem exhausted by the state of things, even sad in many cases.
Biden’s rallies radiate less seeming anger, compared with other candidates’ events, and more generalised strain. Grief is always a clear and present theme. Biden asks for a show of hands from anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer – or in some cases, he asks about parents who have lost children. In Biden’s experience, grief can be a powerful lubricant to human connection. In a naked political sense, it can also be a great blessing.
“Joe is someone who I know can hold me up, who has felt what I have felt on my saddest days,” said Cindy Norton of Anamosa, whom I met after the rally at the motorcycle museum. “This country has never needed his compassion more than it does right now.” Norton had just starred in what Biden watchers call a “Joe moment”. She told Biden that her son was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2014, at the age of 23. Today was his birthday – he would have been 29 – and she decided to take a day off work to meet Biden at the museum.
Biden’s ledger of adversity is well known. He lost his first wife and daughter in a car crash just weeks after he was elected to the United States Senate in 1972; Beau Biden, one of the two sons – along with Hunter – who survived that crash, died of a brain tumour in 2015 at 46. It makes Joe Biden a magnet for the heartbreak of others wherever he goes. “I was just walking out, just now,” Biden had told me, pointing back to the loading dock at the Des Moines Marriott as we were pulling away in the SUV. “And I had – I’m not at liberty to tell you the name, but a guy who comes from Delaware, says, ‘Joe, so-and-so just got diagnosed with blood cancer, you got to call, you got to call.’ ”
Biden is inclined to make these calls, although Beau always encouraged him not to overextend himself. “Beau would say to me, ‘Dad, you’re working too hard, don’t take that call.’ ” Interludes like this can exact a price. “When that happens, when Jill’s around, she knows what happens,” Biden told me. “And it’s impossible not to relive that.”
In talking to Biden, it takes very little to send him deep into his anguish. Beau’s death is clearly still raw. “I don’t think Jill would mind me saying this,” Biden told me. “But for the first year and a half, Jill got up in the morning and would say, ‘Why are we even getting up? We’re never, ever going to be – why is this happening?’ And I’d say, ‘Honey, we got to, we got to.’ ”
Things are better now, he said, though by no means is a presidential campaign the most natural place to weave a loss like that into an everyday routine. But there is also an element of safe harbour to these encounters. Biden seems to take comfort in their humanity. Shared grief offers a universal and very bipartisan space to commune, a refuge in the otherwise dehumanised chaos of a campaign.
As soon as it was apparent that Cindy Norton was sharing a sorrow at the motorcycle museum, Biden seemed to click into a distinctive empathy mode. She had, in effect, entered his wheelhouse, cued up a Joe moment. It sounds cynical to say, as if Biden was just performing – which he was, as all politicians perform – but it did not make their encounter any less real or the connection any less powerful. “It is tough stuff, nothing like it,” Biden said, touching Norton’s arm. “It’s a terrible club to be in. But I promise you, there will come a day when you think about him, and you will smile before you cry.”
The number of people with whom Biden has forged similar little bonds is mind-blowing. I met them everywhere. “We talk about politicians who are eloquent speakers,” says the former senator Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat and a close friend of Biden’s. “We think they capture the emotion of the moment or something dazzling. But what we really should talk about is eloquent listeners. Biden is an eloquent listener.”
“The longer I’ve been around, the less that appeals to me,” Biden says, referring to the day-to-day weight of being president.Credit:Getty Images
In 2016, Trump vowed to make America “win so much, you’ll get tired of winning”. Biden’s pitch to Democrats is also largely predicated on winning, but once – in November. To that end, Biden had essentially been running a general-election campaign before the primaries had even started. He has drawn inevitable scorn from the activist left for his promise to unite the country and try to work with Republicans. A few years ago, this would not have been a controversial goal.
“I refuse to accept the proposition that we’ll be in a state of perpetual war with Republicans,” Biden says. “It’s the United States of America. It doesn’t work without the ‘united’.”
When a motorist pulls over to help a stranger, Biden says at campaign events, neither person cares what the other’s politics are. People who vote for Trump know this, too: “How many of Trump’s supporters want their kids to grow up just like him?” Biden asks. The line always lands. People in the crowd shake their heads. “We need plain, basic decency,” Biden says.
You can see how Biden could be a powerful contrast to the heat and division that Trump embodies and stokes – if Biden can get that far.
“How many of Trump’s supporters want their kids to grow up just like him?” Biden asks. The line always lands.
There is a belief about Biden that he has already been through some of the cruellest fates that can befall a man – what could hurt him worse? His catalogue of misfortunes lends him an air of being, if not bulletproof, someone who can float somewhat above the pressures and demands of what he’s currently doing. So what if he loses a campaign? It would not come close to being the worst thing that has happened to him.
“That’s true,” Biden told me. “Look, the idea of losing an election, losing an argument, losing – I mean – Christ.”
On the other hand, there is something else that has been creeping up lately. “It’s starting to sink in to me now,” he said. “If I’m the nominee, I have such an overwhelming obligation.” He stopped, as if he was afraid to utter the end of the sentence. Finally he did, after I prodded him. “To win,” Biden said.
He seemed to roll over in his mind the reality of these stakes. Particularly the very prospect that he could also meet the same historical fate that Hillary Clinton did – being this year’s model of the Democrat who manages to lose to Donald Trump.
Joe Biden in 2008 with Barack Obama, whom he served as vice-president. Credit:AFP
“You know what I mean?” Biden told me. In 2008, when Obama first enlisted Biden to be his running mate, the future president told him, “I want you to view this as the capstone of your career.” To which Biden replied: “And not the tombstone.” The same could apply to Biden in 2020, after so much unforeseen history: capstones and headstones, triumph and heartbreak. The difference is Biden is 12 years older and the stakes feel that much higher. None of this was part of any plan. And no part of this story feels secure, starting with how it ends.
For a second, Biden’s tight blue eyes bulged out in a flash of unease. It was as if this prospect had never occurred to him before.
“It’s not like: I lose the race, okay, I just lost the race to John McCain, or lost the race to – whoever,” Biden said. He paused and might have winced a little. “But – God, you know?”
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in the New York Times Magazine. © New York Times Company 2020.
GW postscript: After the poor result in Iowa, Joe Biden's campaign was plunged into disarray by a disastrous fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, where the former frontrunner secured only 8.4 per cent of the vote. Biden told supporters he would nevertheless push on to Nevada and South Carolina, the next two states to hold nominating contests, where he is expected to do better.
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