Sunday, May 9, 2021

Joe Biden: new president seeks to heal a divided US

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When a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan.6, Joe Biden had already left his home in the leafy suburb of Wilmington, Delaware, to deliver a speech on his presidential plans for the economy and small business.

But he quickly rewrote today’s script to tackle events in Washington. Darkly, he called on then-President Donald Trump to “end the siege” of Congress, lamenting the “dark moment” that had befallen the country.

“The work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy and the reestablishment of respect for the rule of law, and the renewal of a policy of solving the problems,” Biden said, “without stoking the flames of hatred and chaos. ”

This week, Mr Biden, 78, began trying to make that promise come true by taking the oath of office as the 46th President of the United States. He reached a post he had coveted for decades, with a political career spanning the Senate and the Vice President’s office.

But with the country mired in multiple overlapping crises and still stunned by the attempted insurgency, Mr Biden has chosen to be more reflective than exuberant and repeatedly warn of the difficult times ahead.

“The honest truth is that we are still in a dark winter of this pandemic,” he said Thursday. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Surrounded by the restrictions of Covid-19, its dedication ceremony was relatively grim. He chose to share the limelight with other attendees, especially Vice President Kamala Harris, in a way that underscored his differences with Mr. Trump.

“Biden has reason to be happy and content, but what we can see of him publicly was not a party spirit, but something more serious than that – something praying,” says Evan Osnos, who at write a biography of the new president.

“I have spoken with people close to him in recent weeks about the way he treated [the riots] and one of the things he keeps saying is that it just highlights why [he] not at all in this race, ”adds Mr. Osnos.

Mr. Biden’s first two offers for the US presidency, in the 1988 and 2008 races, both ended in failure. After serving as Barack Obama’s vice president, he refused to try again in 2016, citing the overwhelming grief caused by the death of his son Beau from brain cancer.

But after white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Va., In 2017 and Mr. Trump said there was “very nice people on both sidesMr. Biden decided to take the leap. He launched his campaign by promising to restore America’s “soul” and to ensure that Mr. Trump was a “absurd moment in history“. During his inaugural speech this week, he closed the circle by calling on the Americans to unite and end the “uncivil war” that is ravaging the country.

“He’s very, very concerned that the country is breaking up and he honestly wants to bring it closer,” says Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator from Vermont, who has known Mr. Biden since they both joined the Senate early. from the 1970s.

As president, Biden pledged to bring New Deal-wide economic relief to Americans and dramatically ramp up coronavirus vaccinations while mending alliances around the world.

But he also vowed to bring big structural changes to American society – exemplified by the portraits he placed in the Oval Office. Busts of civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and union leader Cesar Chavez sit near his political hero Bobby Kennedy, and a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt has replaced the choice of populist Andrew Jackson with Mr. Trump.

To succeed, he will need to draw on the skills developed in a career as a highly effective political operator, who has balanced competing interests within and outside the Democratic Party to achieve his goals.

Mr. Biden was born in the industrial town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, but his family struggled financially and moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where his father worked as a car salesman.

“I grew up in a neighborhood [where] you have become a firefighter or a priest. I wasn’t qualified for it either. So here I am, ”Biden said during a campaign stop in Wisconsin in September.

After becoming a lawyer and then a public defender, Mr. Biden first immersed himself in state politics and then in the overthrow of an incumbent Republican to win a seat in the United States Senate he held during the Next 36 years. But soon after the election, Mr Biden’s wife Neilia Hunter and baby daughter Naomi were killed in a car crash while shopping for Christmas, leaving him in deep distress and alone. looking after her sons Beau and Hunter.

Perhaps because of this devastating early loss, empathy became one of Mr. Biden’s main traits – he was one of the first public supporters to ease the hardships of working parents. “If I were President of the United States, the first thing I would do would be to set up a daycare in the White House. I mean this seriously, ”he said during a June 1987 visit to New Hampshire.

As the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests swept across the country in 2020, Mr Biden prioritized proposals to reduce income and racial disparities and tackle climate change. Although he was known as a moderate, he embraced the Democratic Party’s new left-wing tone and ambition as he responded to troubled times. It helped him unify the party after the primaries and keep it together during the general election.

“It was really powerful to have someone who understands the issues people face and wants to have a real, deep conversation about policies that can improve lives,” said Malcolm Kenyatta, a state legislator. from Pennsylvania and a rising star in the Democratic Party. .

Mr. Biden’s political instincts failed him at times, particularly in the 1990s. When he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in 1991 on Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court, he was criticized for the way he handled Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment. It was an episode he would eventually regret and he called her to apologize as he prepared to launch his campaign. He also helped draft the 1994 Crime Bill and bragged about its harshness. The law is now considered to have sown the seeds of America mass incarceration crisis.

But Mr. Biden – who played American football in high school and recently turned to cycling for sport – was tuned enough to how the political winds were blowing to embrace Mr. Obama’s successful campaign in 2008, and then moved ahead of the president in supporting him. sexual marriage. He made the historically significant decision to call on Kamala Harris to be the first vice president of America, Black and Asia.

Only America’s second Catholic President, Mr. Biden, regularly attends church. He imbues some of his speeches with scriptures and quotes Saint Augustine in his inaugural speech. Among the family photographs he brought to the Oval Office was one of himself with Pope Francis.

“As a Catholic in public life, he was imbued with the idea that politics is a deeply noble profession, a form of ministry, a secular vocation,” says Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University and author of a book on Catholicism by Mr. Biden.

Mr. Biden derives solace and companionship from Jill, his second wife, whom he met on a blind date in 1975. They have a daughter together, Ashley. “She gave me back my life,” he wrote in his memories.

Mr. Biden is well known for his personal connections – although he can be interminable at times. Mr. Leahy remembers a visit they made together to a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont. Then vice president, Mr. Biden went out of his way to greet the kitchen staff and charmed the workers. “They were just happy to see a human being be nice to them, and that’s so typical of Joe,” says Mr. Leahy.

Mr. Osnos describes Mr. Biden as having an “emotional register” that taps into “the scar tissue of someone who has had their moments of success, their moments of failure and their moments of disaster.”

Not only did he lose a spouse and two children to death, Mr. Biden overcame a brain aneurysm in 1988 and childhood stuttering. His early experiences gave him a very low tolerance for teasing and bullying.

As he addressed senior officials in his newly formed administration during a video call on his first afternoon in the Oval Office, Mr Biden stressed the importance of courtesy inside the seat of the US government, as well as outside the gates. “I’m not kidding when I say this: if you ever work with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect, talk to someone, I promise you I’ll fire you right away,” Mr. Biden said Wednesday. “On the spot. No if, ets or mais.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Biden will succeed in achieving his political goals with only a slim majority in Congress. He will be squeezed between obstructionist Republicans still very much in the grip of Mr. Trump and an impatient Liberal Democratic base.

But the United States needs a reliable and sincere architect of renewal after Mr. Trump’s disruption, and he wants to oblige. “He showed maturity at a time when the country needed him – he basically said I’m going to help us get through all of this,” Mr Leahy said.

james.politi@ft.com

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