By Jules Witcover
Only a few months ago, in late February, former Vice President Joe Biden was widely regarded, as one author labeled him, as Yesterday’s Man. He was barely hanging on, looking to the approaching Democratic primary in South Carolina as a “firewall” unseen in most crystal balls. A surge of predominantly Black voters resurrected him, and he was on way to now being his party’s prospective presidential nominee.
More than any new insight into Biden’s qualifications after 36 years in the Senate and eight years as President Barack Obama’s sidekick, the very fact that he was not Trump appeared enough to keep him afloat thereafter. A Washington Post/ABC News survey found that about two-thirds of Biden supporters said that was why they would vote for him.
But as spring turned to summer, the sharp contrast Biden offered to Donald Trump in terms of perceived decency and empathy for the nation’s working people began to stand out. Also, Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic fueled the anybody-but-Donald sentiment, at least beyond the sitting president’s mesmerized flock.
Some Democratic voters called for Biden to take Trump on personally and more aggressively. But the former veep chose strategically to take advantage of the coronavirus-induced shelter-in-place protocols and avoid traditional campaigning. He has built a stronger and more diverse ground team with infusions from the party’s progressive wing.
Given the nationwide chaos fueled by the pandemic and Trump’s transparent unfitness to cope with it, there is a widespread public yearning for a return to normal. Biden and his campaign have seized on it with an agenda and a slogan of “Build Back Better” going beyond they anybody-but-Trump rationale.
In a way, the mood for a return more normal times recalls the days after the Watergate scandal nearly half a century ago. The resignation of Richard Nixon brought into the Oval Office another perceived regular guy in Gerald Ford. But his pardon of Nixon didn’t go down well and probably assured his defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976.
This time around, if Biden is elected and particularly if it’s a landslide that sweeps in Democratic control of both houses of Congress, the “old man” from Delaware by way of Scranton, Pa., could bring a much-needed climate of bipartisanship long absent from Washington.
Unfortunately, Trump seems determined to follow the path of his first term of divide-and-conquer through serial lying and allegations of fake news from the American press. No doubt will be more of the same between now and November 3.
Biden, however, has put out word that if elected he intends to launch “an FDR-style” presidency reminiscent of the recovery from the Great Depression. It assumes Trump’s failure to reopen the American economy severely closed down by the pandemic, or the safe reopening of the nation’s schools, by Election Day.
Meanwhile, the immediate challenge for both parties is to assure a fair and timely election. It is especially imperative under the trying conditions of uncertain voter turnout and the ability of local and state election officials to man and oversee thousands polling places across the land. During the state primaries, many were kept closed or left shorthanded by the pandemic.
Trump and his campaign have already sought to undermine voting by mail, claiming it will be tainted by widespread fraud and foreign sabotage. They also warn that such voting will overwhelm vote-counters across the country on election night and days thereafter, delaying final results for days or weeks after the polls close.
The president himself has begun stirring the pot of uncertainty by declining to say whether he will accept the final result if it doesn’t go his way and suggesting delaying the vote. Democrats note he has no power to delay Election Day as set by the Constitution, and they express confidence he can be legally removed from the White House if the result so dictates.
The country well knows by now that Donald Trump above all loves to create drama. Whatever the outcome in November, we can expect more storm and stress.