WHEN FOURTH-TERM SENATOR Joe Biden built his Wilmington, Delaware, home in 1996, he had no plans to turn it into a backup office, let alone a presidential campaign isolation bunker from which to plan a crisis presidency an order of magnitude more expansive than anything in the past half-century. Now, nearly every morning, Biden spins through an early Peloton ride in the upstairs weight room, dresses (formally, no sweatpants), drinks his breakfast shake, and sits at the phone in his study awaiting the latest updates on the world’s misery. Then, sometimes looking at the small lake abutting his backyard that bulges out from Little Mill Creek, the self-conscious man in the Democratic middle—mocked by the activist left throughout the primary campaign as hopelessly retrograde— considers the present calamity and plots a presidency that, by awful necessity, he believes must be more ambitious than FDR’s.
The former vice-president carried the Democratic primary by relying on perceptions that he was an older, whiter, less world-historical (and less inspiring) Barack Obama—a steady hand who seemed more electable against a monstrous president than any of his competitors did. The heart of his pitch, when he delivered it clearly, was status quo ante, back to normal, restore the soul of the nation. But in the space of just a few months, COVID-19 and the disastrous White House response appeared to have dramatically widened Biden’s pathway to the presidency, making the matter of moderation and electability seem, at least for the time being, almost moot. They also changed his perception of what the country would need from a president in January 2021— after not just four years of Trump but almost a full year of death and suffering. The pandemic is breaking the country much more deeply than the Great Recession did, Biden believes, and will require a much bigger response. No miraculous rebound is coming in the next six months.
Biden will presumably spend that time developing a detailed map of what will be necessary come Inauguration Day. Long before the pandemic, he described a range of actions he’d take on day one, from rejoining the Paris climate agreement to signing executive orders on ethics, and he cited other matters, like passing the Equality Act for LGBTQ protections, as top priorities. Already his recovery ambitions have grown to include plans that would flex the muscles of big government harder than any program in recent history. To date, the federal government has spent more than $2 trillion on the coronavirus stimulus—nearly three times what it approved in 2009. Biden wants more spending. “A hell of a lot bigger,” he’s said, “whatever it takes.” He has argued that, even if you’re inclined to worry about the deficit, massive public investment is the only thing capable of growing the economy enough “so the deficit doesn’t eat you alive.” He has talked about funding immense green enterprises and larger backstop proposals from cities and states and sending more relief checks to families. He has urged immediate increases in virus and serology testing, proposing the implementation of a Pandemic Testing Board in the style of FDR’s War Production Board and has called for investments in an “Apollo-like moonshot” for a vaccine and treatment. And he floated both the creation of a 100,000-plus worker Public Health Jobs Corps and the doubling of the number of OSHA investigators to protect employees amid the pandemic. If he were president now, he said in March, he would demand paid emergency sick leave for anyone in need and mandate that no one would have to pay for coronavirus testing or treatment. As the crisis deepened, he said he would forgive federal student-loan debt—$10,000 per person, minimum—and add $200 a month to Social Security checks.
This is all only what he believes should be done now before he even ascends to the presidency; by then, he thinks, the country could be in a much darker hole than it is today, presumably requiring even more federal investment and intervention. David Kessler, who led the Food and Drug Administration under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and has been speaking with Biden regularly about the crisis, recently told me the former vice-president “understands that until we have a vaccine or a therapeutic entity that can be used as a preventative, the virus is still going to be with us and that we’re going to constantly be putting out mini-epidemics.” Biden, he said, “has a very considerable grasp of what a realistic future holds.” He paused. “It is not rose-colored.”
And while 2009 shows that spending unprecedented amounts of money alone doesn’t necessarily make a presidency transformational, the pandemic and the economic collapse it has produced have expanded Biden’s sense of not just how much relief will be required but what will be possible to accomplish as part of that recovery. Presidential campaigns typically produce many more policy proposals than they ever expect they’ll have the political capital to execute—that’s why the more pressing question is often not what a candidate wishes but what he or she will prioritize in the window of opportunity that usually slams permanently shut in the first midterm elections. Trump accomplished one big-ticket priority: tax cuts. Obama managed two: the stimulus, with a filibuster-proof 60-vote Senate majority, and, barely, Obama care. While it’s impossible to tell where the country is headed, Biden’s camp is in the disorienting position of scaling up its laundry list of proposals to match the ambition, and the political appetite, he thinks the American people—desperate for relief—will have in January.
Biden’s long platform has grown in recent months as the crisis has deepened. In early May, for example, his campaign detailed a long list of reforms specifically aimed at helping black Americans, like expanding tax credits used by African-American small-business owners and establishing a $100 billion affordable-housing fund, noting that “the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 have shined a light on—and cruelly exacerbated—the disparities long faced by African-Americans.” And in the weeks before the lockdowns set in, Biden was closing out the Democratic primary in part by shifting left. He embraced Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy proposal, long a contentious subject between the two of them. And though he hasn’t signed up for Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All or free-college plans, he moved toward Sanders on some student-loan-debt and health-care-funding policies and arranged six working groups of advisers to both camps to tackle issues like immigration. Once he began talking about a coronavirus recovery, he also started signaling more immediate ambitions on climate, including in his multiple conversations with Washington governor Jay Inslee. “He’s totally understood the centrality of a clean-energy plan,” said Inslee.
Widely seen as a cautious, tradition-bound pol and intuitive centrist within the Democratic fold, Biden stopped his economic advisers in their tracks one morning in late April. On one end of the call, the economists discussed parallels between the landscape Biden might inherit in January and the devastated one of 2009. Eleven years ago, the newly elected vice-president oversaw the implementation of historic stimulus funding, and these days Biden is fond of bringing up his Great Recession–era work because of the similar effort required today and to remind voters of this experience. But now, he said into the phone, it was time they expanded their thinking. Sure, massive gobs of federal financial help have already been approved—unlike in 2008, he pointed out— but that still won’t be enough. Not while the magnitude of this crisis dwarfs the last one. His advisers agreed: If they were going to talk about lessons from history, their future calls might as well dive into the Great Depression and World War II.
“I think it’s probably the biggest challenge in modern history, quite frankly. I think it may not dwarf but eclipse what FDR faced,” Biden told CNN’s Chris Cuomo last month. “The blinders have been taken off because of this COVID crisis,” he said to a group of 68 donors who gathered on Zoom for a fundraiser a few weeks later. “I think people are realizing, ‘My Lord, look at what is possible,’ looking at the institutional changes we can make, without us becoming a ‘socialist country’ or any of that malarkey.”
Is this news to you? Or does the vice-president seem about as far from a transformational crusader of the left as could fit in today’s Democratic Party? Even during lockdown, Biden has been doing quite a lot of interviews and making a wide range of appearances from his basement studio—in many, signaling explicitly the new ambitions now demanded of an aspiring president. It’s just that with all eyes on Trump, and Biden struggling to seize attention even as he leads in national polls, nobody has really noticed. The candidate is not blessed with historic rhetorical skills—for decades, he’s been prone to gaffes and for months has been dogged by concerns spread by his opponents that he has slipped even further. The present crisis would seem to be an enormous opportunity for a politician (like his former boss) endowed with more expansive communication chops. Instead, Biden is bunkered down, campaigning relatively quietly, and now, suddenly, answering an accusation from his past.
The campaign trail locked down in March, sending Biden back to Wilmington. Late that month, his former Senate staffer Tara Reade came forward.
Reade had been one of a handful of women to accuse Biden of making them feel uncomfortable with unwanted touching before he launched his campaign; he promised to change his “expressions of affection, support, and comfort” at the time. But in late March, she told podcast host Katie Halper that Biden had digitally penetrated her against her will. Soon after, she filed a police report claiming a sexual assault had occurred in 1993. Biden’s campaign flatly denied Reade’s allegation in a statement from his deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, that pointed out his authorship of the Violence Against Women Act. “He firmly believes that women have a right to be heard—and heard respectfully,” she said. “Such claims should also be diligently reviewed by an independent press. What is clear about this claim: It is untrue. This absolutely did not happen.”
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May 11–24, 2020