Frontlist | ‘Joe Biden: American Dreamer’ review: The story of two Joe Bidens
A biography captures the essence of the personal and public sides of the new American President’s life, one riddled with suffering and the other marked by success
“If you ask me who’s the unluckiest person I know personally, who’s had just terrible things happen to him, I’d say Joe Biden,” Ted Kaufman, a friend of Biden, told journalist Evan Osnos before the November election. “If you asked me who is the luckiest person I know personally, who has had things happen to him that are just absolutely incredible, I’d say Joe Biden.” Kaufman’s words, quoted in Osnos’s latest book, Joe Biden: American Dreamer, perhaps capture the essence of the personal and public sides of Biden’s life, one riddled with suffering and the other marked by success.
In 1972, when he was 30 years old, Biden lost his first wife and their infant daughter in a car crash. In 1988, Biden had to go through extensive treatment for a brain aneurysm. In 2015, he lost his beloved son, Beau, who was largely seen as his political successor, to brain cancer. But personal suffering did not deter the rise of the political Biden. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1973, a position he would hold till 2009. He was the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years. In 2009, he became the Vice-President of the country’s first African-American President. And in 2020, he was elected the 46th President of the U.S., defeating Donald Trump in a highly polarised election.
Osnos, a staff writer of The New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize winner, writes about both Bidens in his highly readable book, which offers a quick campaign biography of the Democratic Party leader. The book opens with Biden’s collapse in his hotel room in 1988, and takes the reader to his momentous journey through the many layers of America’s politics. Adapted mostly from his writings for The New Yorker that have been updated and added with additional reporting, the book profiles Biden mostly through the interviews of those who know the U.S. President. Osnos has interviewed Biden’s friends like Kaufman and top political bosses in Washington DC, including Barack Obama under whom Biden served from 2009 to 2017.
When it was clear that Biden would be contesting the 2020 Presidential election, then President Donald Trump stepped up attacks on him. He called him “sleepy Joe”, while Trump supporters unloaded memes on the Internet mimicking Biden, who’s known for gaffes. Biden, who overcame stuttering as a teenager, knows his reputation and sometimes jokes about it, writes Osnos. “When his microphone once malfunctioned during a television interview, he said, ‘They do this to me at the White House all the time’.” But perhaps Biden’s long public career, his cool-headed approach to politics and his ability to joke about his own shortcomings struck a chord with American voters, after the high-octane Trump years. Trump seemed to have underestimated Biden’s political acumen. Osnos’s Biden comes out as a shrewd political animal. “He is very much a weathervane for what the centre of the left is,” a senior Obama administration official told Osnos. “He can see, ‘Okay, this is where the society is moving. This is where the Democratic Party is moving, so I’m going to move.”
This approach was visible in the 2020 campaign as well. Biden, a centrist like Obama, entered the Democratic campaign with a goal to end the Trump presidency. At an early campaign event in New York, he promised stability, and said, “Nothing would fundamentally change”. The left seized on it and launched an online campaign against him. But the same Biden would move towards the left, addressing many of the issues raised by the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren campaigns. Osnos writes that typically in a Democratic campaign, centrist candidates tilt towards the left during the primaries and towards the right during the presidential election campaign. In Biden’s case, it was just the opposite. After clinching the Democratic Party nomination, Biden told Sanders, the self-styled Democratic socialist, in a phone call, “I want to be the most progressive president since FDR”, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who launched the New Deal programmes in the 1930s to lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression.
The challenge ahead
Joe Biden is largely a sympathetic take on Biden. There are passing references to his son Hunter joining the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma in 2014 at a time when Biden, as Vice-President, was overseeing U.S. policy in crisis-hit Ukraine that was undergoing a transition. Hunter later apologised to his dad, writes Osnos. There are references to the allegations women raised against Biden’s inappropriate behaviour. A former Senate staffer accused Biden of sexually assaulting her almost three decades ago. Biden denied the accusation. Osnos doesn’t go into the details, staying focussed on Biden’s “retail politics”.
In the end, Biden’s bet won, at least for now. His focus on winning over both progressives and liberals helped him beat Trump. But he has inherited a divided country. There’s a raging pandemic that has exposed governance in the world’s most powerful country. The economy is in tatters. Race relations are tense. And a vast majority of Trump supporters think that the election was stolen. The question is whether his centrism would hold in the long run amid all these challenges.