Joe Biden Understands Grief—That’s a Valuable Skill Right Now

January 22, 2021  • David K. Gibson

If you want to know what kind of president Joe Biden will be, you can start by learning what sort of person Joe Biden is.

One individual who can offer insight is Evan Osnos, a reporter for The New Yorker. Osnos spent nearly a decade in conversation with Biden and over 100 of his allies and adversaries to write Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now. He discussed the biography with Margaret Brennan of CBS News during an Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn event last week.

Biden and Osnos were drawn together when the reporter returned to DC after years as a foreign correspondent. Biden had expertise in foreign affairs, a long legislative history, and a close relationship with President Obama but, as Osnos noted, “the vice presidency is not the most beloved, glamorous office in Washington, and Biden was not very much in demand as an interviewee.” So, he simply called up Biden’s office and scheduled an interview.

When Biden emerged as a presidential candidate—and an unlikely one, at that—Osnos sat down with him for another series of interviews, taking particular note of how his outlook had changed, and what beliefs were still guiding him. He found a candidate willing to admit to his own failures but standing strong on his core principles.

Here are a few of Osnos’s observations about the man who is now the 46th President of the United States:

1. He’s serious about healing and unity—and lowering the temperature of the discourse.

There are a lot of people who have been “whipped up into a delusion that Trump won this election,” Osnos said. Biden understands that this is a whole-of-society problem that needs a whole-of-society solution. He takes a lesson from the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, saying (in Osnos’s words), “The words of a president can give hate oxygen. Hate will hide under a rock but will come roaring back if a president gives it the opportunity.”

“The flip side of that,” Osnos said, “is that a president also has the ability to set the moral temperature.” Though he noted that ‘This is not who we are’ is a flawed phrase, Osnos said Biden believes deeply that actions like the January 6th violence at the Capitol are not who we want to be as a country.

“I think he’s going to try to get bipartisan solutions, and that will irritate a lot of Democrats,” Osnos said. “There are people who are going to say, ‘You’re wasting time; you’re playing into a trap.’” But Osnos said that Biden is not casually committed to the idea of bipartisanship: “He thinks things work better if you can get Republican support.”

2. He believes in people being held accountable, and in the rule of law.

“I think from Joe Biden’s perspective, the challenge is going to be separating the task of rigorous accountability from the emotional surge and temptation for vengeance,” Osnos said. And there is, in his estimation, much to be accounted for. Osnos floated the idea of an investigation—along the lines of the 9/11 Commission—that would look into what happened on January 6th, and what has been mishandled in the nation’s response to COVID. Some of the investigations may lead to referrals to prosecution, he noted.

However, where Joe Biden draws a “bright line” that Trump did not is in his personal involvement. “That idea of a president interfering in the decisions about how to apply the rule of law and when and how to prioritize prosecutions—that is not a way for democracy to function.” Biden, said Osnos, believes in the institutions of government and believes the president should “stay out of the fray.”

Getting involved in pursuing the conviction or exoneration of Donald Trump, in Biden’s mind, would be to degrade the institution of the presidency—and the justice system. “I would not count on Joe Biden issuing any pardons anytime soon to Donald Trump,” Osnos said. “I think we can count on that.”

3. Biden has moved left, but not as far as most people think.

There is no doubt that Biden has moved a good bit to the left, Osnos said, “but probably not as far left as some people might think.”

“Joe Biden is a perfect weathervane for the center of the Democratic Party, and the point about that is that the party has moved left,” Osnos observed. “He is never going to be the guy who is farthest forward at the frontier of progressive issues, and he also doesn’t want to be the one who is trailing behind, being sort of abandoned by history.”

Osnos related the story of a phone call that Biden made to Bernie Sanders after the latter dropped out of the presidential race. According to a Sanders aide, Biden said, “I want to be the most progressive president since FDR,” and Sanders takes him at his word. There’s a huge amount they disagree on, as Osnos noted, but while Biden’s centrism is his core identity, “he has to be responsive to when the circumstances are pulling the country to the left.”

4. He’ll look to Harris as an advisor to “keep him plugged in.”

Biden knows that the vice presidency is only as powerful as the president allows it to be, and so it’s natural to assume that Kamala Harris will take on a role similar to Biden’s in the Obama administration. But—because so many of Harris’s skills echo Biden’s own—Osnos suggested that she may play an additional role.

“He doesn’t need foreign affairs help; he knows how to do that. He doesn’t need relations with the hill; that’s his area,” Osnos said. “What he desperately needs, however, is a connection to this much broader country, a more diverse country than he represents in his own person.” Kamala Harris is essential to his success in this realm and Osnos believes she will act as a more general advisor who will keep the administration plugged in and help them get things right.

5. He is a devout man, who understands grief. 

“Biden has a testy relationship with the church, but he doesn’t have a testy relationship with Catholicism—and that’s an interesting distinction,” Osnos said. His devotion has helped him deal with the tremendous amount of personal adversity he has encountered. According to Osnos, Biden is a person who confronts loss, saying, “I have grieved, I have recovered, and you will too.”

We are a country in mourning, Osnos noted. We are mourning those lost in the Covid pandemic, and we are mourning our political identity as we struggle with these moments of failure.

“That ability to talk about grief in unadorned ways—neither making more of it than one should but not minimizing—it is an asset that he comes to office with, and it’s unbelievably rare in Washington for somebody to be as acquainted with grieving as he is,” Osnos said. “I think we’ll find that that proves to be a more valuable entity than we may assume at the outset.”

To hear the entire conversation, you can listen to this episode of the Aspen Ideas to Go podcast.

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