In this modern morality play, Biden takes on the role of Everyman…

The summoning of Everyman…

Now that he is the nominee of his party, Joe Biden has a rare and historic opportunity. Candidates often exhibit manifestations of their characters that are baked into their public personas. The Clinton “tell” was in evidence as he lowered an eyebrow and bit his lower lip. He was clearly “feeling our pain.” Likewise, Barack Obama’s deliberative speech patterns, underscored by his shape-shifting use of dialect, suggested a brainy guy striving mightily to make the difficult more simple to understand. The famed Obama reserve was only broken by his signature rally chant, “Fired up, ready to go!” Reagan’s eye twinkle and avuncular tone often was the honey in the medicines he was spooning. W’s quirky colloquialisms left us wondering how it would be to share a beer with the guy. His “gift” was in making easy things hard-a sort of political alchemy for the hard of thinking. The present occupant of the people’s house can best be characterized by his display of ego and bravado — his consideration of daunting awesomeness of himself. The Trump “tell” is when he chooses to lie even when telling the truth would be easier. It is his personal homage to precedent.

The general assessment of Biden is that he feels “comfortable.” Both his supporters and detractors like to refer to him as “Uncle Joe”-the current president snarkily prefers “sleepy.” The Biden vibe is that he is like us, a common man, who just happened to make good. There are no pretensions of intellectualism or hauteur with Joe. If anything, he comes off as a genial guy-next-door-a rank and file member of the middle-class. That perception has been more true of Biden than most politicians who pretend to be of the people. His storied political career began and ended each day on an Amtrak heading home to Delaware where his wife and kids awaited. His net worth, while considerable to most of us, is among the least of those with whom he has served in government. As Joe has stated while releasing 21 years of his own tax returns,

“I entered as one of the poorest men in Congress, left one of the poorest men in government — in Congress and as vice president…”

The everyman mien has served him well. But like every one of us, Biden, as he himself would admit, is not perfect -his life is an open book containing both highs and lows. The Biden resume includes his early upbringing in Scranton, PA, a middle-class “everytown” that was transitioning from its addiction to anthracite mining to a small town regional service center. The tragic loss of his wife and daughter in an automobile accident at the literal beginning of his political career in 1972 is part of the political arc that ended with the death of his son Beau of cancer in 2015. Biden has clearly earned his reputation for empathy and compassion as he has endured personal tragedies that fortunately elude most Americans.

His life story is also notable for his well-chronicled missteps-both personal and professional- a reality hard to avoid in a very public career that has spanned 50 years. An early presidential run in 1987 was abruptly ended when he was accused of plagiarizing sections of his stump speeches. Political opponents have also noted transgressions in his handling of the Anita Hill testimony at the Clarence Thomas U.S. Supreme Court hearings in 1991 and his stances on other hot button issues of his time in the Senate. Humility being one of his most apparent virtues, Biden would be the first to acknowledge that he has made mistakes along the way. In his statement announcing his withdrawal from the 1988 presidential race, Biden admitted as much:

“Although it’s awfully clear to me what choice I have to make I do it with incredible reluctance and it makes me angry. I’m angry with myself for having been put in this position-for having put myself in this position of having to make this choice. And I am no less frustrated at the environment of presidential politics that makes it so difficult to let the American people measure the whole Joe Biden, and not just the misstatements that I have made.”

Channeling Truman

And so as he entered the 2020 race, both critics and supporters were surprised by his lackluster entry into the campaign. In a field of 25 Democrats, Biden’s candidacy was both expected and welcomed by many in the party. His late entry would for them provide a strong moderate voice to the more progressive candidacies that were leading the field. His early debate performances were regarded as weak, while his campaign lagged behind the juggernaut campaigns of fellow Dems Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren in both enthusiasm and financing. By late January, Sanders was the clear frontrunner whose campaign seemed well-positioned to finish off the field. Then came the Jim Clyburn endorsement and the South Carolina primary victory. Some might say that Biden was simply a vessel for Democratic fears that an extreme progressive candidate would be disastrous in a fight against Donald Trump in the fall. “Old shoe” moderate, Joe Biden, would provide a better chance at beating Trump. Others, however, would disagree, seeing Biden better positioned as a contrast to Trump:

“Whatever the gaffes are, it’s sort of priced into the stock by now with Joe,” says David Axelrod, who as Barack Obama’s chief political adviser in 2008 was instrumental in choosing Biden as Obama’s running mate. “But what people don’tdoubt are the fundamental qualities of humanity and empathy and connection and decency-and those are very, very desirable and marketable assets in the era of Trump.”David Axelrod

In a political climate turned topsy-turvy by a self-absorbed and even more imperfect man, Joe Biden is viewed by many in the party as the antidote the times call for.

But rather than wallowing in the “ordinariness” of Joe Biden, let’s not forget his many virtues. He has a little “Harry Truman vibe” to his candidacy. Like the former haberdasher and president, he arrives at a time in which he will be expected to do less — not more. Just as Truman followed a giant when he was sworn in at FDR’s death, Biden, if elected, follows what many would consider a small and self-absorbed man. Whatever Biden does accomplish will be compared to the failures of his predecessor. With that comes an obligation and an opportunity. The obligation is to return the nation to normalcy after a tumultuous past-for Truman, it was to end a war and to lead a nation and a world to peacetime after years of war. For Biden, the task is eerily similar in that the Trump presidency has had worldwide implications that must be addressed and have created a domestic crisis that requires healing and resolution. Biden has these qualities in abundance. Over the years he has demonstrated near Boy Scout qualities-trustworthy, loyal, friendly, almost to a fault; brave and reverent in the face of bitter losses.

Perhaps Harry Truman said it best:

“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” Harry S Truman

A Final Act of Service

At 77 years of age, Joe Biden may finally be finding his stride. All the highs and lows that define a life has brought him to this moment. He has survived personal tragedies and endured public lapses, and he remains unbowed. In a campaign against a narcissistic, inconstant, and self-loathing opponent, Biden in comparison is humble, persistent, and compassionate.

For some Democrats, the Biden candidacy is problematic. The concern is that the Democratic Party has simply tacked to the left of Biden-he represents an older version of the party. But there are signs that the Party may have found a way to transform itself and the country. Unlike Hillary’s run, Biden has forged his role as a transformational candidate — not an entitled one. By promising to serve a single term, choosing a woman as his VP, selecting a black female on the Supreme Court, and refusing to rely on an endorsement from his former boss, Biden clearly is sending the message that his presidential run was born of a principled belief that he offered the best opportunity for the nation, and not simply his party. If he had thrown his hat in the ring in 2016, no one would have questioned him. As a loyal and effective partner to Barack Obama, it could be argued that he deserved the opportunity. Biden for a variety of reasons chose not to run, acknowledging the importance of Clinton’s historic opportunity, even as he mourned the death of a son. While we could argue whether Biden could have defeated Trump, Clinton was certainly a viable candidate who deserved a far better fate.

His is not a vanity run. It offers America one more opportunity to right the ship of state. His victory in so many ways will be a victory for every man-every woman, all Americans. For those inclined to sell him short, it should be noted that Biden has served at the center of power for 50 years. At age 30, he became the second-youngest (at the time) member elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972. In 2008 he gave up his Senate seat to run for Vice President, Biden is no fluke, His experiences in government and in life make him uniquely qualified to be president.

And so, let us not underestimate Biden as a man or as a candidate. His appeal may be that he reflects the very human qualities that reside in all of us-an everyman. But in these times and at this place in history, these qualities are extraordinary. In comparison, Donald Trump stars in his own Everyman play, one whose theme is reminiscent of immoral pursuit — every man for himself. It has been the role of his lifetime.

Originally published at on April 17, 2020.

Former president of the International Association of Laboratory Schools (IALS) and a founder of a charter school based on MI theory.

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