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Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Irish Origins, Immigrant Parents

Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Irish Origins, Immigrant Parents
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

How could we end our series on the leaders revealed through the Covid-19 crisis other than with a portrait of the Democratic candidates making a bid for the White House?

Michel Duclos, Special geopolitics advisor, Editor in Chief of this series


The crux of the American presidential election may have unfolded over the course of February and March. On February 3, Democratic candidate Joe Biden was lagging far behind in the Iowa caucuses. His defeat in New Hampshire was predictable. Cash inflows to his camp were scarce. 

Many observers thought he could not stay in the race for much longer. Other candidates looking for a Democratic Party nomination had the wind in their sails; think of modern-day mayor Pete Buttigieg, and especially the duo of "leftists" formed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It was undoubtedly the rivalry between these two leaders of the "progressive" wing of the party that kept either from winning.

The tone had been set from the very beginning. The most militant activists supported all candidates, because their sole priority was to "get Donald Trump out". An overwhelming majority of activists, however, told observers that Biden, at 77 years of age, was "too old". His speeches, sometimes disjointed and often tearful, did not do much to shift this sentiment. For a politician, acting your age is worse than the age itself. And Biden, despite his remarkable physical presence, does precisely that when he goes off-script to express himself. 

Then, one man turned the race around: Jim Clyburn (80), a respected figure in South Carolina’s black community. During his state's primary on February 26, he made an unambiguous call to vote for Joe Biden, despite the latter's poor performance in previous polls. Biden won the South Carolina primary and subsequent primaries. Strictly speaking, Jim Clyburn did not bring Biden the African-American vote. He reinforced a profound feeling within the black community that the man who had been Obama's second in command for eight years, and who has always been at the center of the party, inspires more confidence in them than the Democrats' new guard with its more advanced ideas.

A decent man, of Irish descent 

A trooper if ever there was one, Joe Biden, who entered politics in 1972 as senator of Delaware, made two unsuccessful bids to be his party's presidential nominee and is known as an unrepentant blunderer, is reassuring even if not inspiring. Of Irish stock, he possesses that quality that is so essential in the American psyche: he is a decent man. The personal tragedies he has faced - the death of his wife and a daughter when he was just elected to the Senate at 29 years of age, and the death of his son Beau during his tenure as vice president - have instilled compassion and empathy in him.

In a sense, Joe Biden is the anti-Trump par excellence.

In a sense, Joe Biden is the anti-Trump par excellence: a professional politician, adept at compromise, who even today has no personal fortune. He is in his second marriage, to a woman who never quit her job as a professor, even when her husband was vice president.

Donald Trump's world was also changing at the beginning of 2020. Until then, his chances of re-election seemed high. The economy was booming, unemployment was falling. Biden's ascension within the Democratic Party was good news for the New York billionaire. Biden's brand of oft-confusing moderation risked being no match for Trump's vindictive energy and talent for denigration. The Democratic establishment wanted a centrist candidate to beat Trump. One could actually have envisaged the opposite approach: facing a man who violently expresses the frustrations of white, uneducated workers by violating all taboos, an equally "angry" figure was perhaps needed to mobilize minorities, young people and abstainers, among others. Populism fought with populism, in short.

In a matter of weeks, Covid-19 upset the variables of the race. The disastrous management of the pandemic harms Donald Trump's image; it has become difficult for Republican elites who only support him out of opportunism to continue to defend him. Above all, the economy - the mother of all electoral battles in America - is not recovering as quickly and as strongly as would be necessary for a smooth re-election of the incumbent president. Meanwhile, the public health crisis drags on, especially in certain red states.

The crisis works in Joe Biden's favor for another reason: it frees him from a public campaign punctuated by countless meetings and debates, which could have exposed the candidate's weaknesses.

The murder of George Floyd, in May, further influenced this already extraordinary race. The anti-racist riots it triggered are reminiscent of the America of the 1960s. Trump is trying to take a leaf from the playbook of Richard Nixon, who was elected under the slogan "Law and Order". He threatens to call upon the National Guard to subdue the Black Lives Matter demonstrators - which would actually not be the first time. This time, however, the tactics are backfiring. A historical development that no one had foreseen is manifesting itself in the depths of American society: a majority of Americans of all races and political persuasions feel a sense of solidarity with the anti-racist movement.

Perhaps the strength and ongoing momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement come from the fact that it constitutes a response from the "American soul" to the more or less overtly white-supremacist ideology promoted by President Trump and his close guard. Or perhaps the magnitude of the anti-racist wave is the result of the country's changing social and demographic structure, in which the place whites occupy appears to be evolving.

A majority of Americans of all races and political persuasions feel a sense of solidarity with the anti-racist movement.

Finally, it is likely that Covid-19 contributed to the potency of the anti-racist protests. The economic and social consequences of the crisis laid bare the system of accrued inequalities, which is closely related to the racial question that still underlies American society in the 21st century. It is the poorest people, often of color, who lose their jobs, find themselves without insurance, can no longer afford their rent, etc.

Thus, through Covid-19, the question of inequality looms large behind the question of race.

The senator with parents from abroad

This is where the choice of Kamala Harris as running mate comes into play. Joe Biden was quick to state that he wanted a female vice president. Arithmetically, he could have recruited a white female politician, since he seemed guaranteed to have the minority vote. Elizabeth Warren did not fit the bill because of her age and her "radical" positions, which would likely have repelled Biden’s more moderate electorate.

There are other female caucasian governors and party officials that could have been an interesting addition to the Democratic ticket, especially in those Midwestern states where, as in 2016, the presidential election will ultimately be determined.

However, Biden and his advisers soon realized that the built-up grievances of African Americans, pushed to the edge by Trump's provocations, demanded a vice president from their community. Then, too, many names circulated, carefully vetted by the selection committee set up by Joe Biden. But all the potential candidates had their drawbacks: Karen Bass, the respected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, had previously shown a high degree of tolerance for Castro's regime; Suzanne Rice, former ambassador to the UN under Obama and a close associate of Biden's, had no political experience and her resume made her vulnerable to Republican criticism. Other promising personalities lacked national stature.

Is California senator Kamala Harris - herself a candidate in her party's nomination race but quickly eliminated in the primaries, and as centrist as Obama's former vice president - a last-choice pick for Biden? It would be excessive to say so, as the intellectual caliber, charisma and energy of California's former attorney general obviously point her toward bright futures. She has the profile - or at least the potential - befitting a "Veep" capable of replacing an elderly president in case of misfortune, and of sporting the Democratic Party’s colors in the 2024 elections.

And yet things did not start off well between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the campaign for the primaries.

In the Senate, where she served for only two years, she was particularly adept at challenging Trump's candidates for attorney general (Jeff Sessions) and the Supreme Court (Brett Kavanaugh). Though vacillating in many of her opinions, she has always fought for social justice.

And yet things did not start off well between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the campaign for the primaries. During the June 27 debate, the California senator mercilessly reminded the former vice-president that he used to oppose "busing", or the provision of transportation for black schoolchildren in the fight against racial segregation. The attack hurt Joe Biden all the more because he had not expected such a personal attack from Kamala Harris, who had been a friend of his son Beau when the latter was the attorney general of Delaware.

Kamala Harris is not without weaknesses in her new position: her offensive style has created enemies in her home state and within the Democratic Party. As a prosecutor, first in San Francisco and then for the State of California, she adopted a particularly hard line toward defendants, which is out of step with the zeitgeist of the "Black Lives Matter" era. Her positions on many topics have been vague and changing, to say the least.

Above all, the "Black Senator", married to a Jewish lawyer, is actually descended from immigrants: Jamaican in the case of her father and Indian in the case of her mother. But perhaps that is actually the main asset she brings to the Democratic ticket: at 55, Kamala Harris represents the demographic gravity point of America's emerging multiracial society. She can embody the future of the nation. Seen this way, she complements the man from the old world whose ambition, as he repeatedly states himself, is to serve as a bridge between ideas and generations.

Just as Joe Biden has the political courage to overcome the blows to his self-esteem inflicted by a particularly tough opponent, so Kamala Harris has deftly managed the quiet campaign for the vice-presidential nomination. She was able to find the right posture, returning to the Senate after her withdrawal from the primary campaign and continuing her hard work on social issues, Covid-19 and racism. She has tried to tone down her image as a brilliant and ambitious woman who could potentially overshadow the future president of the United States.

In these times of populism and existential crisis, it is not insignificant that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are both professional politicians. Aided by the fear of a scenario similar to 2016 (Trump elected despite a popular vote differential of 3 million in favor of Hillary Clinton), they have obtained support from a spectacular line-up of Democrats across the ideological spectrum. Unlike in 2016, this includes Bernie Sanders.

Even though Biden’s platform is only a "light" version of the reform proposals made by the Maine senator, Bernie Sanders declared at the virtual Democratic National Convention that Joe Biden is the most "progressive" candidate the party has endorsed in decades.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris share a capacity for empathy, which was one of the leitmotifs of the Democratic convention. Michelle Obama, especially, channeled this with remarkable oratory efficiency. After months of Covid-19, one starts to get the confusing sense that the populists, while claiming to represent the people against the elites, are divisive more than anything else. This contributes to the inefficiency of their approach to a deepening crisis (in a way that is similar to Bolsonaro and, to an extent, Boris Johnson). 

Joe Biden instead presented himself as a peacemaker, a unifier, with the ambition of reconnecting with the real America.

Can only "classic" political leaders really bring people together in such terrible circumstances as those facing the United States today? Obviously, neither political skill nor the "politics of empathy" practiced by Biden and Harris will be enough to bring about the new "Franklin Delano Roosevelt moment" that America needs in the next four years. But they may be two necessary conditions.

In his speech accepting his party's nomination, Joe Biden unquestionably rose to the occasion. All the other speakers had been pounding on Trump's record. Without skimping on the pathos, Joe Biden instead presented himself as a peacemaker, a unifier, with the ambition of reconnecting with the real America - "a Nation under the eyes of God", which has nothing to do with "America first". He also outlined a concrete program and clearly detailed his priorities. He perfectly conveyed the idea that, unlike four years ago, the Democrats now have a mission: to get the country out of crisis and to restore "the soul of America".

It should be noted in passing that all of the Democratic convention's rhetoric was bathed in religiosity. Although traditionally the case in the United States, this banal trait undoubtedly finds a particular resonance at a time when a president who is as non-religious as possible counts the evangelical movement among his main supporters.

Will the Irishman from Delaware and the Californian with foreign-born parents win the election on November 3? History has not yet been written. Should they come to power, will they really succeed in - to use their language - exorcising the demons that have taken over America? What will the dynamics between the president and vice president be? Could the latter not, as is whispered, and given the head of state's age, impose herself as more of a co-president, at least in domestic politics? In her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Kamala Harris was careful not to give the impression that she aspires to such a role. She focused, more than anything, on introducing herself.

Her words were also in keeping with the underlying theme of the convention, which was perhaps the real message behind these often-coordinated speeches: Democrats want to find the keys to "America's promise" and return to traditional values - family, tolerance of others, hope, everything in the American spirit that is positive. The voices of the party point out that these values are the reason there is more and more room today for a much more diverse elite than has been seen in the past. And isn’t that what the Biden-Harris ticket is all about?


Illustration : David MARTIN pour l'Institut Montaigne

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