Mark Leibovich: Just an ordinary Joe?

Mark Leibovich: Just an ordinary Joe?
Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Concord, New Hampshire a day after the Iowa caucuses. Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

He flopped in Iowa, but the former US vice-president insists he will prevail and capture the Democratic nomination and oust Donald Trump from the White House, writes Mark Leibovich.

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 US 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, and a fund-raiser.

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.

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 endeavor — 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.

“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 US presidental campaign in recent memory, Biden’s has been defined by the alternative. He 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”.

“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.”

Mark Leibovich: Just an ordinary Joe?

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 front-runner, despite everything — despite himself.

“I’ve taken it now for eight months,” he said. “I’m still here. And I’m still winning.”

People were holding signs, standing out in the cold, waiting for him to emerge.

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 — for the foreseeable future.

At the heart of that trial were Donald 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 newly released video about Ukraine. “He knows he can’t beat Joe Biden.”

The Biden campaign hierarchy comprises a fairly conventional mix of established Democratic operatives, White House veterans and Biden loyalists.

Mark Leibovich: Just an ordinary Joe?

Several have been advising Biden for years and are considered “family”.

Exceptions include Anita Dunn, who is a well-known Washington media strategist and was a top aide with Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Kate Bedingfield, the campaign’s deputy manager and communications director, has been entrusted as much as anyone with disseminating Biden’s 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 Representative 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. 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.

Biden wanted no part of some on-the-fly repackaging. Instead, he 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.

What struck me in Iowa, 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 was 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 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.

Biden’s events can be sedate affairs compared with the more rollicking gatherings for Sanders, Warren and Trump.

At the Iowa events I attended in January, Biden looked fit and rested after a few days off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

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.

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.

His rallies radiate less seeming anger, compared with other candidates’ events, and more generalized 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 Biden’s first rally in 2020, held at Anamosa’s National 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 off work and come 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.

Mark Leibovich: Just an ordinary Joe?

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, referring to his wife. “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.

“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.”

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 has essentially been running a general-election campaign before the primaries have 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’.”

I was traveling with Biden in New Hampshire last spring when he predicted that as soon as Trump was gone, Republicans would have an “epiphany” and suddenly be willing to reach across the aisle again.

Ridicule swiftly followed. But Biden has only leaned harder into the message of unity in recent months.

“He got lit up like crazy for that,” Mike Donilon told me. “Think about that. A person running for president is getting lit up because he stands in front of an audience and says: You know what, we need to unify this country.”

Mark Leibovich: Just an ordinary Joe?

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.

But one question has dogged Biden’s campaign from the start: Can a 77-year-old white male moderate who spent more than 40 years in Washington excite Democrats increasingly eager for bold change?

With a majority of the results from Iowa finally released after technological glitches brought the vote count to a halt, Biden was sitting in fourth place behind Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren.

Now Biden must worry that the tepid result opens the door for billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, another moderate, who has surged in the polls since making a late entry into the race with a virtually bottomless cheque book.

Biden must also account for the success of Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who provided a fresh face to voters looking for a moderate candidate and who made a generational argument that it was time to look past Biden’s era of leadership.

Buttigieg, 38, out hustled Biden on the trail and out-raised him in terms of campaign cash, playing to rowdy crowds that made Biden’s look sedate.

Biden’s camp insists it will prevail in the long run, saying the result in Iowa — 90% white — would not suggest that Biden’s core supporters — particularly African-American voters — are poised to abandon him.

Even if he loses again in also predominantly white New Hampshire in next week’s primary, his campaign says Biden will make up ground in more diverse Nevada and South Carolina later in February.

“The point is, I count the four. The first four are the key,” Biden told reporters.

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Additional reporting from Trevor Hunnicutt.

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