A story from President Biden’s past came to mind Wednesday as the words of his inaugural address rang out across Washington, D.C.’s cold, empty, militarized Mall, just two weeks after a mob of MAGA zealots bent on stopping Congress from certifying his election swarmed the steps where Biden now stood, and invaded the seat of American government.
“Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause: the cause of democracy,” Biden declared. “I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lie in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering, can I keep my health care? Can I pay my mortgage? Thinking about their families, about what comes next. I promise you, I get it. But the answer is not to turn inward.”
Instead, Biden continued, “we must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” And, he promised, “we can do this, if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment.”
It was a call, above all else, for maturity.
More than a dozen years earlier, in 2008, Biden faced a similar reckoning of his own. After securing the Democratic presidential nomination, then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama called to offer Biden a spot on the ticket. At first the elder senator declined. “Can anyone even name Lincoln’s vice president?” he asked his aides.
But Biden’s wife, Jill, urged him to reconsider, reminding him that he “started out in politics because of civil rights.” Now he had a chance to be “a major part” of “this historic moment,” she said — to support “the first Black man ever elected to be president of the United States.”
Still Biden hesitated. In his six terms as a senator, he’d never had to answer to anyone except the voters of Delaware. He’d run for president himself. To borrow a phrase attributed to Nelson Rockefeller, he never wanted to be vice president of anything.
“How am I going to handle this?” he asked Jill.
Her reply was simple: “Grow up,” she said.
Much has been made of Biden’s age, and with good reason. At 78, he is not just the oldest person to be sworn in as president, he is also the oldest person ever to occupy the Oval Office, period. When Ronald Reagan’s second term ended on Jan. 20, 1989, he was still 16 days shy of his 78th birthday. Biden turned 78 two months ago.
During the campaign, Biden’s seniority was framed as a flaw — not only by Donald Trump, who caricatured his opponent as a befuddled codger reduced to popping (imaginary) performance-enhancing pills, but also by the former vice president’s much younger Democratic rivals. “There are a lot of people who are concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to carry the ball … without fumbling,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker mused at the time. “Can he be someone in a long, grueling campaign that can get the ball over the line?”
Yet now that Biden is leader of the free world — now that he lapped Trump by more than 7 million votes, making him the first challenger in decades to topple an incumbent president — it’s worth pondering why his age wasn’t the handicap his competitors hoped it would be.
Maybe it’s because Biden’s age hasn’t been a handicap at all. Maybe it’s been an advantage.
Maturity isn’t always measured by the calendar, but we do tend to attain it — assuming we ever do — as the years advance. Pundits have attributed the success of Biden’s candidacy to any number of factors: his decency, his empathy, his calm, even his boringness. But “maturity” might be a better way to describe what Biden brought to the 2020 contest — and what he now carries with him into the White House, where it could turn out to be his greatest asset in meeting this very fraught moment in America.
Maturity is a difficult concept to pin down. Dictionaries are useless. One describes it as “having or showing the qualities of an adult person”; another calls it “the quality of behaving mentally and emotionally like an adult.” But how should an adult person behave, especially when so many adults don’t behave the way they should? And what distinguishes adult behavior from the behavior that preceded it?
Not long ago, I stumbled across a stray image that stuck with me. “Resist the urge,” read a sign in a shop window, “to make it about you.” The point is not just that you aren’t the center of the universe. The point is that you never really overcome the urge to act as if you are; the point is that all you can do is resist it.
It’s the most accurate definition of maturity I’ve found — and more than anyone else in American politics, Biden has come to embody it. Trump, of course, does not; his signature trait is solipsism, the belief that he really is the center of the universe. But then neither did Biden’s old boss, Obama, who conflated his story with America’s and never met a problem he didn’t think he could solve through the sheer force of his own rhetoric and reason. Obama’s charismatic approach to politics was potent, to be sure. It was also very much about him. Just look at how many state and local seats Democrats lost on his watch.
It goes without saying that all candidates for president consider themselves special, and Biden is no exception; 2020 was his third run for president, the previous two having ended in defeat.
His first campaign, in 1988, was a “calamity” — an uncertain, undisciplined run in search of a rationale beyond Biden’s own self-regard. “I started looking at the race through the wrong prism,” he later wrote. “I looked around, judged myself against the other potential candidates for the nomination, and by the beginning of 1987 I decided I could beat them.” Eventually his reckless logorrhea did him in, and he was forced to bow out after plagiarizing part of a speech.
His second bid, in 2008, did not go much better. Now the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden believed that he, and only he, could end the Iraq War. Iowa caucus-goers had other ideas. He finished fourth, with less than 1 percent of the vote.
But this time, the third time, was different: an exercise in resisting the urge to make it about him. In part because of the pandemic, Biden seemed to recede. He no longer strayed as far from his prepared remarks. He no longer appeared so desperate to prove — to himself as much as anyone else — that he had perfected the maneuver Richard Ben Cramer once called “the connect.” You were no longer “more likely to hear from Biden,” as Cramer wrote in 1988, “what Jill said the other day about teaching … what his mother used to say … or a wonderfully embroidered story about a nun in Scranton … than you were about his five-point education plan.” Now at a stage of life when one’s popularity tends to matter less than one’s legacy, he no longer acted like a human handshake. This wasn’t about him, he said again and again. It was about getting rid of Trump. It was about “restoring the soul of the nation.” Biden was just a vehicle, a vessel. “Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” he said at one point. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”
Always proud, even prickly, Biden learned, however begrudgingly, to apologize in public: for his tendency to spontaneously touch people who might not welcome it; for some of the problematic “tough on crime” positions he took in the past. Always in love with the sound of his own voice, he also learned to listen, absorbing much of Bernie Sanders’s agenda into his own. “[Alexandria Ocasio Cortez] said that she wouldn’t vote for [Biden] in the primary, and that in a different country she would be in a different party from him,” Sean McElwee, an influential liberal activist who co-founded the nonprofit think tank Data for Progress, told the New Yorker. “And he could have responded to that by being, like, ‘F*** you.’ But instead he responded to that by being, like, ‘How about you come in and write my climate policy?’” The most memorable moments of Biden’s run weren’t even about him. He bonded with a 13-year-old, Brayden Harrington, who shared his tendency to stutter. He chose as his running mate a much more charismatic figure, Kamala Harris.
All of this suggested a shift in focus — an awareness that the needs and wants of others were at least as important as the candidate’s, and that campaigning as such could send a powerful message in the midst of a pandemic. Loss has a way of putting one’s own life — one’s own importance — in the proper perspective. Famously, Biden has endured more than his fair share: the loss of his young wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash; the loss of his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. “I only have one regret: He’s not here,” Biden said of Beau on the eve of his inauguration, choking back tears. “Because we should be introducing him as president.” Later that day, as the official U.S. death toll from COVID-19 hit 400,000, Biden led a memorial service on the Mall. “It’s hard sometimes to remember,” he said. “But that’s how we heal.”
In his address on Wednesday, Biden pledged to “press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril, and of significant possibilities — much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain.” As he made clear, the challenges ahead are immense. A chaotic vaccine rollout. A virus that is mutating around us. A divided Congress. A polarized society. A racial reckoning. A warming planet. A former president who insists, falsely, that his successor stole the election — and tens of millions of Americans who refuse to accept Biden’s legitimacy as a result.
Yet Biden’s maturity suits the moment, and his continuing commitment to resist the urge to make it about him could serve the country well. Political science has shown that the more a president inserts himself into a debate, the more polarized that issue becomes. It happened when the Affordable Care Act, a market-based plan based on a Republican idea, became known as “Obamacare.” It happened again when Trump insisted on reopening schools. Perhaps Biden can find a way to make his multitrillion-dollar COVID-19 rescue and recovery proposals less about what he wants and more about what the American people need — and what Congress can actually accomplish. Perhaps he can recede again. As former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang once put it, “The magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable.”
But ultimately, Biden doesn’t need to mend all of America’s wounds to make progress. He just needs to ask more of the American people than his predecessor did: a president who, in effect, asked nothing — who instead gave Americans permission to put themselves first.
More than any ideology, it is this license to indulge our own immaturity that has brought America to the brink. The license to reject the results of a free and fair election if it doesn’t go our way. The license to dismiss inconvenient truths as fake news. The license to celebrate going maskless as a form of “freedom.” The license to ignore the freedom we take from others when we make them sick. The license to make it all about ourselves.
So Biden needs to keep asking the American people, as he did Wednesday, to “start afresh — all of us.” He needs to keep asking for a measure of maturity.
“Let’s begin to listen to one another again,” Biden said. “Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement — it doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.”
A few days before his inauguration, Biden spoke from Wilmington, Del., about his national vaccination plan. Near the end of his remarks, he returned again to the riot at the Capitol — to a scene that he saw, perhaps, as a metaphor for the task he must now confront.
“It was shocking to see members of the Congress, while the Capitol was under siege by a deadly mob of thugs, refuse to wear masks while they were in secure locations,” he said. “I’m so proud of my congresswoman right here in the state of Delaware, Lisa Blunt Rochester, trying to hand out masks while people were lying on the floor, huddled up. And Republican colleagues [were] refusing to put them on! What the hell is the matter with them?”
Biden paused for a moment, staring directly into the camera.
“It’s time,” he finally said, “to grow up.”