Joe Biden had been a United States Senator for more than three-and-a-half decades until his selection as Barack Obama’s vice-presidential running mate in 2008. According to Jacobin writer Branko Marcetic, in his timely new biography Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, “there’s still no straight story of why exactly Obama chose Biden to be his vice president.”
One thing, however, is certain: the selection was not for his achievements or for what he stood for.
The average American probably couldn’t tell you much about Biden’s accomplishments as a senator. Despite his longtime presence in Washington, most only know him as Obama’s VP—the folksy everyman, more recognizable for his secondary role to the former president than someone with standout legislative exploits.
Back in 2008, Biden’s record also did not quite match with the rhetoric of Obama’s campaign, one that promised impoverished Americans “change” and a liberal vision of racial harmony.
That same year, Biden himself ran for president a second time, initially against Obama who he then described as the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” He later dropped out after placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses. Biden was never nationally popular or renowned for anything he had accomplished. He was only elevated as a centrist institutional foil under a potentially left-liberal Obama administration.
In 2020, Biden finds himself as the pick of the Democratic establishment for the US presidential primaries. Their case for Joe Biden is a “return to normalcy” as the strategy to beat Donald Trump in the general election. For Marcetic, however, there is a strong case to be made against the 77-year-old’s presidential candidacy by looking into Biden’s legislative record. From working with Reagan-era Republicans to pushing austerity on workers, to his tough-on-crime agenda, to supporting the Iraq War, Yesterday’s Man demonstrates what a potential “return to normalcy” would look like under a Biden presidency.
Biden is perceived as just “a normal guy” to average Americans, according to some Democratic Party insiders, despite being described as “Kennedyesque” early on in his political career. The image of “middle-class Joe” is the appeal that Biden has tried to package and sell to working-class Americans on behalf of the corporate elite. Biden’s supposedly ‘unremarkable’ nature has contributed to his consecutive electoral victories as senator and has become part of the Democratic Party’s pitch to Americans as a safer bet to become the next president.
Marcetic lays out, in great detail and with comprehensive annotation, Biden’s legislative record, the causes he has championed, and the political defeats he has suffered throughout his long career in Washington. Yesterday’s Man shows that he has not faced much in the way of political struggle, nor was he ever fully on the right or wrong side of history. His positions on civil rights, wars, free trade, and poverty moved with the currents of political expediency, serving the interests of those in power. Despite his folksy charm, he was never at the forefront of any important political movement that helped working-class folks.
Throughout his career, Biden’s ‘average Joe’ image masked an intent to transform the Democratic Party, to abandon New Deal-era liberalism, and embrace a form of neoliberal centrism. Yesterday’s Man highlights how the Democratic senator would sometimes twist himself in knots to be onside with Republican counterparts against successive progressive wings of the Democratic Party. His motives, writes Marcetic, have always been clear: to one day hold power as the President of the United States. To do so, he cozied up to Wall Street in New York from his home state.
Delaware’s business court system created a “bankruptcy haven” for national and multinational companies incorporated in the state, favouring bankrupted companies over creditors and protecting profits for owners when their businesses tanked. More than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies are registered in Biden’s home state, placing their corporate executives within arms-reach of the senator from Delaware. Who better to advance the interests of these corporate constituents in the Senate, or the White House, than ordinary Joe Biden?
Captured in fastidious detail, Yesterday’s Man chronicles the long history of Biden’s senatorial career, the neoliberal agenda he has shaped in the Democratic Party, and the people in power with whom he has aligned himself. His past and ongoing opposition to Medicare for All, even in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, demonstrates a steadfast allegiance to his corporate allies and donors. Marcetic thoroughly illustrates, despite his ‘averageness’, how Biden has managed to collect influence within the Democratic Party establishment, which has coalesced around him during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to fight Bernie Sanders for the nomination.
Marcetic also highlights the mistakes, failures, and flip-flops that underscore Biden’s (in)effectiveness as a legislator. His failures to make a balanced federal budget a constitutional requirement, failing to pass cuts to Social Security, and pushing for a “three-state solution” to Iraq’s sectarian black hole following the 2003 invasion are just some of the defeats he experienced in the Senate. These defeats were probably for the best. Had he succeeded on these fronts, Americans and people around the world would be worse off.
While his personal struggles have informed his character and image, it is apparent in Yesterday’s Man that they never really informed his politics. Contrasted with Bernie Sanders, whose political identity was formed over a half-century by standing on the right side of history against contemporary undercurrents, Biden’s longstanding embrace of centre-right policies should understandably confuse American voters who are only familiar with Biden as a meme from Obama’s presidency.
His public appearances should also worry them. The Democratic establishment’s current fixation on keeping Biden’s campaign alive during the worst global health crisis in a century demonstrates unease in their parlay. Their pitch to voters for his electability is based on the apparent desire for a continuation of the Obama presidency.
If voters knew more about the sort of ‘normalcy’ Biden actually advocated for, working-class Americans would see that ‘average Joe’ is not fighting for them.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Democrats will continue to hide Joe Biden physically, and strive to conceal the more deleterious elements of his political record in his mediocrity, and bide their time until he can be useful again.
Clement Nocos is an Ottawa-based policy analyst and writer. His work has previously appeared in The Globe and Mail, VICE, and GQ. He studied political economy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the University of Tokyo.