So who, exactly is "Joe Biden"?

Evan Osnos on America's next President

December 18, 2020

Berkeley, California


With only 33 days to go until Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th U.S. President, Biden is mercifully replacing Trump at the vortex of our attention economy. Today we learnt that he’ll have his public COVID vaccine shot on Monday - a convenient photo opp to roll up his sleeves on behalf of the American people. This week we’ve had the continuous drip-drip of announcements and rumors detailing his administration. And, of course, everyone now - from Bob Gates on foreign policy to Bill Gates on COVID - is giving him advice about what Biden should do when he moves into the White House on January 20, 2021.

But who, exactly, is Joe Biden? We are fortunate that one of America’s most lucid journalists - Evan Osnos of the New Yorker - is also a Biden authority. In his new book, Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now, Osnos introduces us to the next American President and earlier today, I talked to him about Joe Biden.

So what does Evan Osnos tell us about the next President of the United States?

He is characteristically sharp on Biden’s appearance, writing that the seventy-seven year old career politician has parted with youth grudgingly…. his hairline has been reforested, his forehead appears becalmed, and Biden generally projects the glow of a grandfather just back from the gym.” And in our interview, Osnos suggests, wishfully I suspect, that Biden’s appearance - that avuncular decency with which the rest of the world used to imagine America - predicts the all-too-decent President that he’s about to become.

Perhaps. But I fear for an American President who glows like an over-exercised grandad. The problem is that our attention economy, particularly its unforgiving political sector, is almost entirely visual. Image makes or breaks presidencies. As Rick Perlstein suggested to me when we spoke earlier this month about his new book Reaganland, Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter was mostly a visual one with that eternally fixed Hollywood smile eclipsing the worn cardigan in their 1980 election.

In today’s digital world of Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, Americans must have a President who overpowers their screens. Like it or not, that’s the vortex - the insatiable heart - of our information economy. Trump, who has no off-screen identity, did this effortlessly - which explains why he got over 70 million votes last month in spite of COVID and his myriad impieties. As the film historian David Thomson suggested to me last month in a conversation about the cinematic precursors to Donald Trump, for all the books about Trump, there remains one to be written about his seemingly preternatural ability to control the camera.

In Joe Biden” Evan Osnos reminds us of the time in 1975 when the 32 year-old freshman Senator from Delaware wrote to Hannah Arendt requesting a copy of her Bicentennial address, “Home to Roost”, about the dangers of lying in politics. If Arendt was around now, she would probably advise grandpa Biden, with his reforested hairline and becalmed forehead, to tell Americans the truth about their failing Republic. That might work. As long as he doesn’t wear a cardigan.