clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Joe Biden has become the 46th president of the United States.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Filed under:

How Joe Biden, the ultimate insider, defeated Donald Trump, the ultimate outsider

The lessons of Biden’s unusual campaign.

From one angle, Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election takes on an aura of near-inevitability. Biden is well liked, experienced, known. He served as vice president to Barack Obama, still the most popular figure in American politics. He ran against Donald Trump, who has never won a majority of the vote in an election or cracked 50 percent approval in polling averages. The campaign was set against the devastation wrought by the coronavirus, which has killed more than 230,000 Americans and left millions more jobless, gasping, and afraid.

Yet to get here, Biden shattered the conventional wisdom about how modern American politics works, shook off a vast procession of critics and detractors, and assembled and held together an unlikely coalition that stretched from democratic socialists to moderate Republicans. He ran a decidedly old-fashioned, understated campaign, based on a picture of the electorate many considered outdated, an approach to the media that seemed archaic, and a transactional form of politics that many thought discredited.

In the era of Trump’s “I alone can fix it” approach to politics, Biden ran on relationships and compromises, a campaign where the candidate — in defiance of political trends and fretful advisers — frequently faded into the background of the coalition he was assembling. Democrats fretted almost continuously that Biden wasn’t doing enough to enthuse voters, to dominate the conversation, to turn out the base. But in the end, he won in the highest-turnout election since perhaps 1900, mobilizing more voters than any candidate in history.

It will likely be weeks before we know the final tally, but if the current trends hold, Biden will see a larger popular vote margin than Hillary Clinton in 2016, Barack Obama in 2012, or George W. Bush in 2004. The Electoral College, and Pennsylvania’s achingly slow vote count, turned the election into a nail-biter, but in terms of support, it was never even close.

Joe Biden visits a neighbor’s house after stopping by his childhood home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on November 3.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the core of Biden’s candidacy sits a professionalism we often deride in presidential politics. Biden is a politician, in the truest, deepest sense of the term. In a culture that rewards the performance of uncompromising conviction and the aesthetics of anti-Washington outsiders, Biden delights in the pluralistic, messy work of political negotiation.

His politics isn’t about what he believes, but about finding the intersection of what he believes, what he believes the country believes, and what the people he needs to win over believe. That makes Biden a more protean, mutable figure than we’ve seen in recent presidential campaigns. And it speaks to the kind of presidency he’s likely to have.

“The word ‘politician’ has become a bad word,” says Jared Bernstein, a top economic adviser to Biden. “But if you think of a politician as someone who recognizes the policy zeitgeist and has the chops to implement it, that’s a good skill set. And that’s Biden.”

As the coronavirus crisis brought a Senate majority into view for Democrats, there was talk of an FDR-size presidency for Biden. That talk has quieted. It may be months before we know the final composition of the Senate, as both Georgia seats look likely to go to a January runoff. But the probable outcome, as of now, is that Mitch McConnell retains his position as majority leader. So Biden, the dealmaker who still prides himself on his ability to win Republican votes, will face the ultimate test of his approach.

The personal is political

If you were to go searching for the molten core of Joe Biden’s politics, you could do worse than this passage from his book Promise Me, Dad:

My old friend Tip O’Neill, the twentieth century’s most colorful and successful Speaker of the House, famously said, “All politics is local.” I’ve been around long enough to presume to improve on that statement. I believe all politics is personal, because at bottom, politics depends on trust, and unless you can establish a personal relationship, it’s awfully hard to build trust.

This is the core of Bidenism. It’s also the core problem of it. As his many critics have pointed out — myself included — the relational politics that defined the Senate decades ago have fallen before the structural polarization of modern American politics. Biden often seemed caged by his affection for the Senate of yore, musing proudly of the deals he cut with segregationist senators like Mississippi’s James Eastland. But that Senate, for better and for much, much worse, was a product of the mixed political parties of the past. It’s gone now.

Yet Biden’s focus on personal relationships bore more fruit in the campaign than I, for one, expected. The primary was defined by a battle between the Democratic Party’s more establishmentarian, moderate wing and its growing leftist faction. Biden won, in the end, in a dramatic Super Tuesday victory driven by his success in South Carolina and a slew of big-name endorsements and dropouts. The stage was set for division and mistrust.

Biden smoothly united the party, and it was his attention to personal relationships that set the foundation. “I think the difference now is that, between you and me, I have a better relationship with Joe Biden than I had with Hillary Clinton, and that Biden has been much more receptive to sitting down and talking with me and other progressives than we have seen in the past,” onetime presidential rival Sen. Bernie Sanders told the New Yorker.

As Biden wrote, personal relationships build trust. And trust builds a foundation upon which negotiation and compromise — the core work of politics, as Biden sees it — is possible. And so the Biden-Sanders relationship birthed the Biden-Sanders task forces, which was, to my eyes, the most impressive and interesting decision of Biden’s campaign.

Rather than taking his victory over Sanders as an opportunity to define the Democratic Party, Biden took it as his opportunity to unite the Democratic Party. And that meant reopening his policy agenda, and giving a slew of critics and detractors a voice in his campaign.

Sen. Bernie Sanders endorses Joe Biden during a livestream broadcast on April 13. Images

Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the environmental group Sunrise Movement, was one of those detractors. The Sunrise Movement had given Biden an “F” on climate during the campaign, a position his campaign considered grossly unfair given the ambition of their plans. But when the Sanders team proposed Prakash as part of the task force, Biden’s team didn’t flinch.

“They could’ve said, ‘I don’t want Varshini to be part of the task force; her organization has been mean to me,’” Prakash told me. “But they didn’t, and I give them credit for it.”

This was, for the Biden campaign, a risk: Adding Sunrise to the task force would shine a spotlight on them, give them more clout, and make it far more damaging if the organization once again decided to torch Biden’s commitment to climate. But that’s not how it played out. The Biden camp listened. Their plan changed, strengthened.

“I was standing behind Bernie Sanders when he unveiled his climate plan in 2016,” Prakash says. “The fact that Joe Biden’s climate plan now is more ambitious than Bernie Sanders’s plan in 2016 is mind-blowing.”

The result was that the Sunrise Movement, rather than feeling defeated by the Biden campaign, bought into it. “There’s a reason we’ve made hundreds of thousands of phone calls and sent hundreds of thousands of postcards to defeat Trump,” Prakash says. “It’s not about the political champion or the political savior. It’s about the broader mission at hand.”

Joe Biden greets a person in a polar bear costume during a campaign event in Hudson, New Hampshire, on February 9.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Biden has long maintained that the same approach will help him peel off Republican legislators. “I’ll say something outrageous,” he told me in July. “I think I have a pretty good record of pulling together Democrats and Republicans.” He predicted that some Republicans will feel “a bit liberated” if Trump is defeated, and will be ready to work with Democrats on issues like infrastructure and racial inequality.

“In my career, I have never expected a foreign leader or a member of Congress to appear in the second-edition Profiles in Courage,” Biden continued. “But I’m fairly good at understanding the limitations for a senator or leader and helping them navigate around to what they want to do from what they’re having political trouble doing. I have been successful in helping my Republican friends find rationales to help me get what I’m pushing over the top.”

Biden remains proud of his role in the Obama administration as the one Democrat who could still cut a deal with Mitch McConnell — deals that, in some cases, liberals loathed — and confident that the relationships he’s forged with Republicans will bear fruit under his presidency. Biden is, I suspect, the Democrat who can maximize the amount of legislation that happens so long as McConnell is majority leader. But that may mean accepting deals many Democrats dislike. So the question, then, is how Biden balances the left of his party with the Republicans he’ll need to work with in the Senate.

Evan Osnos, author of Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, and What Matters Now, put it best to me. “Personal relationships are a tool of political statecraft. Biden used it first in a regional conflict, in his own party, and next he’ll have to figure out if it works in international warfare. And who knows? He’s not really operating with a rational actor. But the campaign has been a bit of a corrective on the power of these fundamentally sentimental assets in politics.”

The country changes, and so does Biden

Biden’s agenda, at this point, places him well to the left of Hillary Clinton in 2016, or Barack Obama in 2012, or Joe Biden in 2008. This is something of a surprise given Biden’s history as a relatively centrist Democrat — in his final Senate term, he was the 26th most liberal member of the Senate Democratic caucus, placing him smack in the middle — and, in some quarters, it’s occasioned mistrust. Biden has such a long record in politics that he’s been on multiple sides of myriad issues, and hypocrisy, or insincerity, is always an easy conclusion.

So, too, is the fear that Biden is a secret conservative. Who’s the real Biden — the one who cosponsored a balanced-budget amendment in 1995, or the one who is explicitly tying his administration to FDR’s legacy in 2020? The politician who voted against the first Iraq War, or for the second?

But another read of Biden’s career is that as the country changes, he changes, and he does so proudly. That, to him, is the job of a politician — to absorb the disagreements and needs of a fractured, diverse country and use the channels and institutions of politics to steadily perfect the union.

Osnos’s book includes a quote from an unnamed White House official reflecting on Biden’s early embrace of marriage equality. “He is very much a weathervane for what the center of the left is. He can see, ‘Okay, this is where the society is moving. This is where the Democratic Party is moving, so I’m going to move.’ ”

Here is where I make an argument I believe but cannot prove. It’s not just that the world changed; it’s also that Joe Biden changed. I’ve covered Biden for two decades. When he ran in 2008, no one thought to define his campaign by pointing to his empathy or his gentleness. Biden was a notably arrogant figure in Washington, good at making deals but always spoiling for a fight, desperate to be seen as the smartest in the room. He was quick with a cutting dismissal and often contemptuous of those to his left, or those he saw as less schooled in the ways of politics.

As he’s gotten older — and particularly after serving as Barack Obama’s vice president, and then losing his son Beau — that arrogance burned away, leaving a more open-minded, and open-hearted, man. I don’t think the Biden of 2008 would have won the primary and welcomed in his critics. I think the Biden of the past had more to prove than the Biden of the present, and the softer, less ego-driven approach to politics he practices now has served him well.

Either way, the country is changing now, and that permitted Biden to run an unusual strategy in 2020, one that may have profound consequences for his presidency. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ran as the proud standard-bearers of the left. That let Biden run aesthetically as a moderate — he wants a strong public health insurance option rather than Medicare-for-all; sharp limits on fracking rather than an outright ban; policies that would cut adult poverty by 50 percent and child poverty by 75 percent rather than a universal basic income — even as he designed an agenda that, if passed, would be the most profound overhaul of domestic policy since Lyndon Johnson, at least.

The Trump campaign was flummoxed by this. They tried relentlessly, and at times hilariously, to paint Biden as a radical socialist who’s a tool of the left. There is a kernel of truth in their portrayal: Biden is offering the leftmost agenda of any presidential nominee in modern history, and his agenda has been influenced by Sanders, Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others on the party’s left. But Biden’s long career in politics, and the candidates he ran against, turns the efforts to hype his supposed communist sympathies into unintentional camp.

“The magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable,” Andrew Yang said during the candidate roundtable at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. “If he comes with an ambitious template to address climate change, all of a sudden, everyone is going to follow his lead.”

Biden is likely to be more constrained on domestic policy, where he will have to negotiate with Senate Republicans, than on foreign policy, where the president has more power. But there, too, the changes in Biden’s thinking have been notable. Biden pushed hard for humanitarian interventions in the 1990s, and supported George W. Bush’s request for authority to go to war in Iraq. But the failure of that war chastened him, and he proved one of the Obama administration’s consistently cautious voices on military intervention, arguing against an Afghanistan surge and the (disastrous) Libya intervention, and even pushing for an airstrike on Osama bin Laden’s compound, rather than the riskier plan of sending troops in on the ground.

“You mentioned Joe having voted for the war in Iraq,” Obama said in a Pod Save America interview. “He learned a lesson from that. And as you know, he was probably the person who was most restrained in terms of use of military force among my senior advisers during the course of my presidency.”

A quiet candidate in a loud time

The tendency in every election is to refight the last war and counter the previous election’s winning strategy. In 2016, Trump won a shocking upset in part by dominating media attention. He was inescapable, inexhaustible. And so a conventional wisdom quickly congealed: To beat Trump, in the modern era of social media-driven politics, you had to disrupt his ability to set the agenda, shut down his talent for controlling the conversation. You needed to fight him on Twitter, on Reddit, on Facebook, on YouTube.

But Biden simply refused. “Biden Is Losing the Internet. Does That Matter?” fretted an April New York Times headline. “Mr. Biden has just 32,000 subscribers on [YouTube], a pittance compared with some of his rivals in the Democratic primary race and roughly 300,000 fewer than President Trump,” it warned.

Biden ran an oddly modest campaign, and it got even quieter after the coronavirus hit and in-person events ceased. “Does Biden Need a Higher Gear? Some Democrats Think So,” warned a Times article in September, in which a variety of Democrats worried over the way “Biden’s restraint has spilled over into his campaign operation.” Trump was holding daily press conferences, appearing at rallies, owning the nation’s attention. Where was Biden?

Joe Biden rallies supporters in Philadelphia on November 3.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But Biden was clear about his strategy. “The more he talks, the better off I am,” the candidate said of Trump in May. Biden’s bet, in the primary as well as the general, was that Americans were tired of the loudest voices in the room, tired of the grievances and disputes that dominated political media. The same strategy that led Trump to victory in 2016 would drive him to defeat in 2020, so long as Biden didn’t get in his way.

“There were all these people who in March or April were saying Biden has to be out there every day, that he’s invisible, that he needs a daily briefing,” a senior Biden adviser told me in June. “But people are not looking for a Trump 2.0. They don’t want a Democratic Trump. They want a president. The best way to run against Trump is to go be the president they don’t have in this country right now.”

As my colleague Jane Coaston has written, Trump ran the most Extremely Online campaign in history, often emphasizing issues that were inscrutable even to professional political reporters. To follow along with ease, you had to be deep into the Fox News cinematic universe, easily conversant in right-wing memes and conspiracies. Trump’s campaign was angry, negative, and alarmist, but it was also just confusing, a reflection of the president’s idiosyncratic interests and obsessions.

Biden’s strategy was the opposite. At times, his campaign felt transported from another era, with kitschy, post-partisan ads narrated by Sam Elliott and a vibe that Trump officials mocked as lifted from an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But after four years of Trump, President Mr. Rogers sounded pretty good to plenty of voters.

“Biden ran a campaign that is not a Twitter campaign,” says Yanna Krupnikov, a political scientist at Stony Brook University. “He has a T-shirt in his store that says ‘Tweet less, listen more.’ That’s aimed at Trump, but it’s indicative of the overall campaign. This was a campaign trying to reach people who weren’t political junkies.”

That was also reflected in Biden’s media strategy, which didn’t reflect the heat of anti-Trump discourse in the Democratic Party. Despite running against a deeply unpopular president, Biden ran an unusually positive ad campaign in a bid to reach voters who didn’t loathe Trump so much as they just wanted a candidate, and a presidency, that felt different from the current one.

Trump’s central strategy in the campaign was playing up polarization, emphasizing divisive issues, trying to split the country into two halves in the hopes that his half would be bigger, or at least more efficiently distributed across the Electoral College.

Biden’s strategy was the opposite: He ran a strategy built on defusing negative partisanship, a campaign designed to deprive Trump of a boogeyman to run against even if that meant avoiding some of the messages, policies, and controversies that would have motivated Biden’s own base. That’s a strategy that likely would have failed against a more graceful, less polarizing candidate than Trump, but Biden was running against Trump, not that hypothetical alternative. As a result, Biden could effectively outsource Democratic base mobilization to Trump while focusing his efforts on the kinds of voters who wanted a calmer, kinder alternative.

If, in 2016, Trump proved the potency of running an offensive campaign, recognizing that outrage generated its own energy, Biden’s 2020 strategy proved that a strategically inoffensive campaign could be a potent response. It will require full results and more granular data to truly judge this strategy, but so far, it looks like Biden ran ahead of both his party’s Senate and House candidates, suggesting there was something to the contrast he chose to draw with Trump.

Biden ran an oddly modest campaign, and it got even quieter after the coronavirus hit. But Biden was clear about his strategy. “The more [Trump] talks, the better off I am,” he said in May.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For Biden now, the question is what all this looks like without Trump as a foil. Can the Democratic base hold together when they’re riven by disagreements over legislation rather than united by opposition to the president? Can Biden, as president, ignore Twitter controversies and try to hold marginal voters when the focus is on him and his actions? Is there any possibility of a successful governing agenda so long as Republicans hold the Senate and the Supreme Court?

Biden’s strategy worked in the context of Trump’s presidency. And now we’ll see how it holds up in Biden’s presidency.

The Gray Area

Naomi Klein on her doppelganger (and yours)


North Carolina Republicans’ naked bid for more control over elections, explained


All the salacious details in the Bob Menendez indictment, from gold bars to a Mercedes

View all stories in Politics

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.