ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
In this chapter of our Washington Week Bookshelf we welcome Evan Osnos, author of a new biography of the president-elect, Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now. Evan, welcome to the Bookshelf.
EVAN OSNOS: Thanks for having me, Bob. Great to be with you.
MR. COSTA: Before we begin, Evan, let’s take a look back at President-elect Biden’s long career.
SENATOR-ELECT JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): (From video.) I expect these fellows are going to eventually judge me on my merit and not on my age.
SENATOR JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): (From video.) Today I announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.
The key to restoring confidence in our traditions and our institutions was public officials who would stand up and tell the American people exactly what they thought. I mean to be that candidate.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) But I just wanted to get some folks together to pay tribute to somebody who’s not only been by my side for the duration of this amazing journey, but somebody who has devoted his entire professional life to service to this country: the best vice president America’s ever had, Mr. Joe Biden.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We stand at an inflection point. We have an opportunity to defeat despair, to build a nation of prosperity and purpose. We can do it. I know we can. We will lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.
MR. COSTA: Evan, you begin your book Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now by visiting then-candidate Biden at his home in Delaware. It’s at the height of the pandemic. You can’t even shake his hand. You have to sit across the room from him in a cottage in his backyard. Yet you encountered a man, based on this book and reading it closely, who is very at ease with his own politics, about where he fit in American political history. We just saw some of the clips there of his long career. Where do you see him now, November 2020, the president-elect?
MR. OSNOS: Yes, you know what’s so interesting about his story, Bob, what kind of I think draws in somebody like me, somebody like you who is fascinated by the role of politics in a life and how these personal and political experiences become kind of intertwined, is that he is at this point in his life probably the most settled he has ever been. You know, this is a guy, as you heard in that clip, who got into this at the, you know, ripe young age when he was 29 years old, too young to even take the seat in the Senate that he was running for at that point – had to wait until he won in order to get sworn in legally – just, you know, kind of a man racing time, and then he had this life of extraordinary tragedy and success. I mean, as Ted Kaufman, his old close friend and advisor, said to me at one point – and this became a kind of guiding idea for this book – was that Joe Biden is the luckiest man I know and the unluckiest man I know. And if you take those two facts and you follow that all the way through the period in which, again, then his son Beau died in 2015, and you take that to today, this is a man who approaches this moment – the incredible complexities of now with COVID, with the diminished role of the United States around the world under Donald Trump’s presidency, with the economic crisis that he’s contending with – and he regards it with extraordinary gravity. That for me is the dominant impression I get talking to him these days, is the sense of seriousness, and that is not the Joe Biden you would have heard about if you had encountered him 48 years ago when he was regarded as a – you know, a bit too young and a man who was a bit too much in a hurry.
MR. COSTA: And another thing that strikes me, Evan, is how much of a contrast he is with President-elect Trump at the time in 2016. I remember going to Trump Tower in New York at that time and you would see people like Steve Bannon and all of these outsiders who had been on the political fringe now being welcomed onto the inside, yet this week we saw it was the insider, the seasoned hand, Ron Klain, being named White House chief of staff, someone who goes back to the 1980s as an advisor. What does that reveal about Biden?
MR. OSNOS: What it tells you is a fundamental philosophical commitment of his, which is that government, if used carefully and used expertly, could probably make your life a little better. I mean, that’s his core idea, is that when it comes to foreign affairs and the complexities of dealing with 180 countries around the world, or it comes to the sort of minor details of domestic policy, the small differences that can determine whether a person gets a job or stays safe from COVID, that experience is not just nice; that experience is actually essential. And you know, in some ways we are, all of us, I think, in our business, we are sort of intoxicated by the newness that can happen in politics – the new name, the new face, the slightly sort of radical idea that comes in from the outside and presents something that breaks the script up. And Joe Biden is kind of flamboyantly unradical. I mean, this is the thing that somebody said to me who worked with him in the White House, worked with President Obama, as I was working on the book; said to me, you know, I think Americans are probably ready to have a boring president again for a while. You know, this person said the last boring president we had – and this isn’t, you know, totally fair – but the last boring president we had was George H.W. Bush, and look at us, we’re all pining and sort of venerating the memory of George H.W. Bush’s kind of quiet competence, dignity, not putting yourself at the center of entertainment and politics. So that’s what strikes me, is that you’ve got a Joe Biden at this point in his life who interestingly, Bob – you know, one of the things that he brings up more than anything else with you when you talk to him is his own regrets – the mistakes he made, the things that he voted for that he wishes he hadn’t voted for. Often when you encounter somebody in their eighth decade who is in politics they’re sort of accustomed to looking back with a kind of valedictory spirit and talking about all the ways that they did things right. You don’t get that from Joe Biden at this point in his life; you get a kind of reflection that I did not anticipate when I started this project.
MR. COSTA: Let’s dig a little bit deeper into that regret point because Biden’s road to the White House, as you know, was not always clear. Back in February his campaign was struggling following defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the turning point was an endorsement from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who urged Black voters in South Carolina to back Biden.
REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): (From video.) I want the public to know that I’m voting for Joe Biden. I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.
MR. COSTA: And on Saturday Biden thanked Black voters in his victory speech.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) The African American community stood up again for me. You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.
MR. COSTA: Evan, to your regret point, Biden’s history on race, however, is complicated, and some younger Black activists have been hesitant to support him over the past year. How do you see those dynamics in 2021, and how does Biden see it?
MR. OSNOS: It’s absolutely fascinating. I mean, if you look at the course of his life he found himself coming of age politically in Wilmington, Delaware – which was, after all, a place that was kind of culturally and geographically suspended between the North and the South. It had Jim Crow laws in effect, but it was also closer to New York City than it is to Raleigh, North Carolina, and you heard that in his politics back then. You know, he was, after all, an opponent of court-ordered busing, and then he was also somebody who took some pride in having participated in desegregation protests. So you have this kind of competition within the man, within the soul of what he believed in and what he would – what he would try to express as part of his politics. And then of course there was this crucial turning point in his life: he becomes the – and it was really sort of an unexpected turn – he gets tapped to be VP for the first Black president. And I think for him that was a turning point for him not only because it sort of gave him something to be proud of, that he was helping this man make history, but it also established him, of course, in the minds of older Black voters, particularly older Black voters, that he had been a faithful servant of a history-making president, and for that he deserved to be rewarded. When I was talking to folks in South Carolina around the time of the endorsement and afterwards, I heard an interesting description. Cornell William Brooks, who was a great civil rights activist, former had of the NAACP from South Carolina, he said, you know, many of the voters who are like me, when we look at Joe Biden’s life we can’t indict him for things that we don’t indict the Democratic Party for because his story is in many ways the story of the Democratic Party. And he said, for many of us today we have a kind of, to use his phrase, unapologetic pragmatism about the choice of the presidency because we remember that in the very same month that Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president a racist madman walked into a church in South Carolina and killed parishioners as they prayed.
So as you think about the year ahead and the issues that are facing Biden’s presidency, he is very conscious of the fact that he was put into this job precisely – he was put into this job by Black voters. That is not an exaggeration. And he feels, I think, a strong connection personally and politically to the Black freedom struggle. I think it is part of how he imagines his imprint on history. And he wants to try to find those natural moments when he can try to extend what he thinks he did for President Barack Obama, helping him succeed, now also of course introducing the first Black president into the – I’m sorry – the first Black vice president into the White House. And he wants to try to continue that pattern.
MR. COSTA: To that point, the same person who supported the 1994 crime bill also served as President Obama’s vice president, and elevated Vice President-elect Harris to that number-two slot in the executive branch. What do you know about the relationship between Biden and Harris?
MR. OSNOS: It’s a really interesting one because, you know, Joe Biden puts an unusually high emphasis on the vice presidency, on the institution, on his belief that it matters. You know, after all he came into the job and he came to realize, as he put it to me, that the vice presidency is only the job that the presidency makes it. So he, you know, came into the job expecting that – he thought he would be the LBJ vice president, meaning in effect the link to Capitol Hill. And what he discovered, partly after reading Robert Caro’s fourth volume of the LBJ biography, that actually LBJ was miserable in the vice presidency. And so he kind of came to understand that actually what he could do, and the most important thing he could do for this president, was to help him succeed.
And so I think he expects a couple of things out of his relationship with Kamala Harris and the White House. Number one, frankly, he takes pride in the fact that he did not run a kind of crypto campaign for president from the vice president’s office. And I think he doesn’t expect her to do it either, doesn’t want her to do it either. But he also recognizes that she brings different assets than he brought. When he was vice president he had the expertise on foreign affairs that the president didn’t have. He also had the links to Capitol Hill that the president didn’t have.
He doesn’t need those from Kamala Harris. What he needs is something very different, which is that she needs to connect him both in an inward – sort of inward-directed way to the population outside, helping him understand what younger generations expect, and need, and care about. And also, she helps him then express what this presidency is about to a generation of Americans who frankly look at a what will be 78-year-old White man and say: He doesn’t understand my predicaments. He doesn’t understand my experience. So she will be a crucial piece of making sure that Democrats and people broadly feel as if he’s in touch with the problems in this country.
MR. COSTA: That point just now, it gets to the implications of Biden’s victory and what it means for the Democratic Party, because Democrats may have won the White House but there are striking divisions within the party. And you write in your book that Biden faced a moment of almost impossible political and economic complexity, the nominee of a party gradually marching left which was desperate to win over moderates and Republicans who were terrified of that march to the left. Evan, do you believe, as the president-elect faces all of those currents in his own party, will he govern as a centrist because Democrats have voted – have given – voters have given Democrats a more limited victory than expected, especially in the House?
MR. OSNOS: I think he really will. And I say this after a lot of consideration and a lot of reporting. We heard Joe Biden frame himself in two different ways in this campaign. After all, he started by saying with this kind of – he had a very limited ambition for the campaign. He said: We’re essentially doing this to remove Donald Trump as president. There was that fateful moment, a phrase he will regret I’m sure – already regrets, when he said to a group of – a fundraising event in New York that “nothing will fundamentally change.” You know, that phrase instantly made its way onto the internet. There were posters made up in the style of the Obama hope poster that said “nothing will fundamentally change.” And then you heard him by the end of the campaign talking about being the most transformative president since FDR.
What you – what changed along the way was not Joe Biden. I mean, this is actually President Obama’s argument to me when I spoke to President Obama over the summer for this book. He said: I don’t think Joe changed, but the circumstances have fundamentally changed. They are so grave that they raise the stakes for what this president needs to be. But Joe Biden for 48 years in politics has believed in something powerful, which is – as Jim Clyburn put it to me – he and Clyburn actually have a lot in common philosophically – Clyburn calls himself a centrist.
And he says: I know younger Americans don’t like it. But what happens in American politics is you go from one extreme to the other. And that means you pass through the center. And you spend twice as long in the center as you do at the extremes. Joe Biden sees the United States fundamentally as a – I think he would describe it as a center-left electorate. And he’s going to govern that way. It’s going to mean he’s going to get a lot of pressure from the left, but he’s ready to deal with that.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ll leave it there. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra, our Bookshelf. Many thanks to Evan Osnos for his time. Evan, a really terrific book. It’s a fascinating read because it hits all the points about Biden. And it’s written in such a lyrical way, I can tell you write for The New Yorker. Evan, thank you very much.
MR. OSNOS: Thanks, Bob. My pleasure. Great to be with you. And thanks for reading. I’m grateful.
MR. COSTA: Thank you.
And you can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch this on our Washington Week website. And when you’re there you can sign up for our Washington Week newsletter, see an advance look for the show every week, and see the rest of our Washington Week Bookshelf. A lot of great conversations with authors up there on our webpage. I encourage you to check it out. But for now, I’m Robert Costa, thanks so much for joining us, and we’ll see you next time.