Richard Ford: ‘Something about Biden isn’t rubbing through’
Richard Ford is a novelist and short story writer best known for his quartet of novels featuring the protagonist Frank Bascombe, a failed sportswriter turned novelist, which includes The Sportswriter, Independence Day and the Pulitzer prize-winning The Lay of the Land. Ford’s acclaimed memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, was published in 2017 and the following year his 1990 novel, Wildlife, was made into a widely praised film starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. His most recent short story collection is Sorry for Your Trouble
My wife and I, last week, were watching the NBC nightly news at 6.30 – a usually profitless exercise which, when Trump was president, often eventuated in both of us cursing and shouting execrations at the television and having to go pour ourselves stronger drink. This time, however, the reporting concerned Joseph R Biden, who is now president of the United States. The suggestion was that Biden’s presidency – a year old this month – has actually produced considerable good for our country and the world, despite poll numbers that indicate many Americans think he hasn’t gotten much done at all.
The list of accomplishments might obviously surprise you. Serious, hard-won new infrastructure legislation; aggressive federal prosecutions of seditionists and white nationalists; spurting jobs numbers. And more, on the domestic front. On the international list, there’s the renewal of US membership in the Paris climate accords; efforts to reframe an Iran nuclear treaty – impulsively abandoned by Trump; a re-pledging of old Nato affiliations. This list is long as well.
Still. Muddling over the dinner dishes and wondering aloud about why Mr Biden’s having a rough go getting credit for his accomplishments, my wife pointed out she really doesn’t know much about President Biden, whom we both voted for, campaigned for, contributed money to and lost a few old friends in behalf of. We knew the Biden saga – the tragically lost young wife and daughter; the folksy, pliable Catholic; all about riding the Amtrak home each weekend. The lost son. We know about Scranton and Wilmington, the pretty, savvy second wife with the PhD, the Senate years, Anita Hill, the go-to union constituency, the Barack sidekick of loyalty, mirth and patience; the pivotal South Carolina Black vote. The boilerplate stuff anybody knows about any politician.
Yet it seems that something about Biden isn’t rubbing through so as to confer on him the credit due. One wonders – I wonder – if it’s his fault or ours.
Americans at ground level – bobbing along in a political culture that prefers light-operatic campaigning to grinding out legislation, implementing it and delivering on promises – Americans seem to care much less about who’s in office than, incongruously, who’s kept out. It’s the Hillary syndrome. Winning, for both national parties, feels second best to making the other guy wear the scarlet “L”. Americans also don’t really see national politics and governance as a pressing home-front concern – more as an annoying obligation they’re happy to stay un- or misinformed about. If you live in Billings, Montana, Washington DC’s a long ways off. People here believe politicians there don’t know or much care what’s going on here. We may all consider ourselves good Americans – citizens, patriots – but we do so mostly only in emblematic and ceremonial ways. Our core geo-identity (after our racial and gender ones) originates in regions and states – even in cities. It’s true, as you have heard, politics really is local. Probably it’s the same in Thailand.
And yet Joe Biden, where both these political conjecturings are concerned, suffers from being precisely an old-playbook, elderly white man committed to nationalised policies and delivery schemes; a patient, behind-the-scenes, self-deferring deal-maker with the plying mentality of a legislator – somebody who has to win and stay in office to get things done. Plus, for 36 years he was known to us, if at all, as the senator from Delaware – somebody we didn’t need to think much about if we didn’t live in Delaware (which almost no one does). On top of all that, being vice-president – for Americans, now an almost comical office – didn’t help the way you’d think it might, having a seat so close to power. Lyndon Johnson is the great countervailing case, of course – senator, VP, bodacious, arm-twisting chief executive. But Joe Biden, for better and for worse is no Lyndon Johnson, who unlike Biden governed with a historical, two-house congressional majority that couldn’t resist him.
Succeeding Trump, of course – while lifesaving for our country – hasn’t been easy. The guy who follows along behind the elephants traditionally has a hard time being seen as part of the parade. Biden, in my view, has been pointedly successful in advancing much more than a reverse’n’repair un-Trump agenda – legions of federal judges seated, industrial production up 0.5% as of November 2021, aggressive Covid vaccine distribution and advocacy – along with just plain being willing to show up when citizens are in trouble – killed in Afghanistan, storm-ravaged and homeless in Kentucky, murdered in school rooms in Michigan. But Trump remains ludicrously popular among infatuated Republicans, 53% of whom think he actually won the 2020 election, and 42% of whom fear this fall’s midterm elections will not be fairly run, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Which means, treacherously, that both parties now fear our most vital democratic institution – our elections – has been de-legitimised. Twenty-three million Americans bought a gun last year. Not all of them are Republicans. But many are the same people who believe the Covid vaccine contains magnets that’ll cause a soup spoon to stick to your forehead if you touch it there. I mean… why would a majority of Americans bother to support earnest old Uncle Joe, when you have fun facts like that to take your mind off your miseries? When Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992 his campaign clarion call was: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Now you’d be better to exclaim: “It’s the people (stupid).”
I’ll concede that for the past year it’s been a relief to feel merely “among the governed” rather than what citizenship felt like under Trump – a bizarre, civic death dance. This relief may have caused me and others to let our minds wander from how it was before Biden became president, and from what’s being done now to make that bad time not come back. This kind of vigilance – the kind that remembers and then acts – may not be native to our side. After all, our side has the high ground, doesn’t it?
It’s been a hell of a year to be president of the United States if your portfolio says you’re here to restore sound government. Forget about trying to gain separation from the other guy. In 2021, we saw a violent attempt to overthrow our presidential election, a multiply-resurgent killer pandemic, a seditious chief executive, an impeachment, no fewer than 470 mass shootings that claimed 482 of our citizens. Thousands of lives have been lost to global climate calamity. Immigrants are massing at our southern border and aren’t going away. Meanwhile, the party in nominal power is fractured nearly beyond repair and can’t find a common vision of what’s good for the country. While the opposition remains smirkingly disloyal and often appears dislodged from its senses. It’s a lot. Race relations may be the best thing that’s happening. It must seem, sometimes, to Mr Biden that what unifies all sides of the political chasm is an urge to let the whole contraption of America collapse just to see what that’ll look like.
The American presidency is an optic on to the state of the nation. The president’s job is to cause citizens to see that nation more clearly, more as a unity worth preserving, and then to show us how that preserving can be done. Donald Trump did it – in spades – by lying about most everything. But here at the beginning of year two of the Biden administration (so it seems to me, though I wish it didn’t) our citizens’ gaze doesn’t seem to linger on Mr Biden himself – even in the way it lingered on Donald Trump; but instead seems given to stray away – toward our fractious, individual rights, toward new sources of complaint, toward our irredeemable differences from the other side, even when the other side is our side; and then absent-mindedly to shove on to who will assume the presidency next. As if now didn’t matter.
What I don’t know about Joe Biden maybe doesn’t matter as much as what he gets done in his four years. My wife tells the story of briefly believing that self-respecting American women would never vote for Donald Trump, only to find out that indeed they would – because they understood they’d never have to know the man. Yes, I’d feel better if I knew what made Joe Biden really angry, and beyond that could know who fears him. These are just my private metrics of what’s intrinsic about other humans. But whether we need to know him or not, it is Mr Biden’s peril and it will be our great loss if he fails to make us look truthfully at our country through him and through the prism of his beliefs. Today, it’s one down and three to go before we have to face up to our worser angels again. There’s still time, I think, to get it right.
SA Cosby: ‘He’s the grownup in the room after four years of temper tantrums’
SA Cosby is a mystery and thriller writer from Virginia whose breakthrough novel, Blacktop Wasteland, won an LA Times award in 2020 and topped the New York Times bestseller list. His latest book, Razorblade Tears, is a revenge thriller that confronts homophobia in the deep south. Film rights have been bought by Paramount Players
To properly assess the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency we have to take a look back at his predecessor’s tenure. For many Americans not indoctrinated into the cult of 45 the previous four years was like being in a house that was simultaneously on fire and also possessed by a demon that was trying to kill you while a sink hole was opening up in the basement. It was a nearly daily emotional rollercoaster that veered from embarrassment to rage to abject apathy like battle hardened survivors in some dystopian epic.
Compared to that the Biden presidency is like being in a house with a leaky roof and a few faucets that drip and the kitchen could use a new coat of paint.
It’s not perfect but it’s salvageable.
I think the one thing Joe Biden brings to the office is something all Americans, even those that voted for his opponent, didn’t realise they needed.
Whatever Joe’s issues, and he has a few, the one thing he exudes in spades is a sense of calmness. His is a sure hand on the wheel. Sure, it may tremble a bit but one never fears he will steer the ship into the rocks on purpose.
There is a quaint anachronistic nature to President Biden’s managerial style that is a step or two behind the times. He still believes in the real art of the deal. In the quid pro quo that was the bedrock of the American legislative branch during his time as a representative and senator and even during his time as vice-president. The smoke-filled backroom or the wood-panelled office where the real business of government takes place.
I fear that moment has passed in American politics. In some ways President Biden refuses to accept that notion. The Republican and Democrat parties are no longer just ideologically distinct. One party is fractured between a centrist pragmatic philosophy and an earnestly progressive one. The other party pretends that their followers didn’t attempt a coup on 6 January 2021. They count among their constituents white supremacists and fascists who live in an alternate universe where elections are only legitimate if they win and science is whatever causes you the least inconvenience.
Given this monumental divide it’s difficult really to quantify the president’s job performance. He’s had some big wins. His bill to improve America’s roads, bridges and digital superhighways passed, although with a significantly smaller price tag that he originally envisioned. He has made vaccines a cornerstone in his fight against Covid-19. The fact that vaccines are free all across America is an achievement in itself. He has implemented policies to slash childhood poverty and medical inequality. His justice department is defending a woman’s right to choose while also holding police departments across the country accountable for corruption and violence.
He’s also had some remarkable mistakes and defeats. His Build Back Better plan has been stymied by two senators in his own party for… reasons that seem at best vague and at worst nefarious. He has resisted the calls to use executive orders to erase student loan debt or extend Medicare for All or address voting rights.
But for me most of those wins and losses don’t matter.
In terms of my own politics, I would probably be classified as a liberal. I tend to vote the Democrat ticket, especially since the Republican party has seemingly lost its ever-loving mind. But philosophically I’m a pragmatist first and foremost. I fully see politics as theatre. All politics is a show upon a stage. And that’s where President Biden has impressed me the most.
He knows this instinctively. He has a true politician’s gift for communication and artifice. Even his enemies don’t realise the performance he is giving is award-worthy. After four years of [Trump’s] buffoonery and brat king antics Joe Biden is most successful at acting like… an adult. Republicans like to mock his age and his speaking style, which was influenced by a stutter that he overcame as a young man, but even his most ardent critics can’t pierce the armour of his single-minded seriousness. He is the grownup in the room after four years of temper tantrums. During the worst pandemic of modern times and also one of the worst economic catastrophes in decades, President Joseph Robinette Biden has walked up to a podium and spoken to the people he leads in clear and concise tones that are measured and weighted by the gravitas of the moment.
I haven’t always agreed with the president’s decisions but I’ve never once doubted he wanted what was best for the entire country. Even the folks that didn’t vote for him or are actively hostile to him don’t doubt that.
That itself, in this age of bellicose strongmen and disingenuously self-effacing leaders and outright authoritarian autocrats, is a minor political miracle.
Margo Jefferson: ‘There’s a lack of inventiveness – the great political movements were all imaginative’
Award-winning writer and academic Margo Jefferson taught journalism and writing at New York university and Columbia university before joining the New York Times, initially as a book reviewer, where she went on to win the Pulitzer prize for criticism. Her 2006 book On Michael Jackson won widespread praise, as did her memoir, Negroland, which explored how her own experience intersected with politics, from the civil-rights movement to feminism, and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize
I had various levels of hopes for the Biden presidency – and in retrospect those hopes were mixed with fears. Like millions of people, I hoped that a halt would be put to the vehement processes of tyranny [that flourished under Trump], and that we might return to some kind of decent normality. After which, we wanted voting rights secured, and Build Back Better. We were terrified about the supreme court, and we had a right to be. We were hoping for an end to the avalanche of action and reaction, of propaganda, that in its own way is as violent as the literal attacks on 6 January were.
The other day, someone was talking about the DW Winnicott idea of the good enough mother: she’s not a saint, she has her own problems, but she’s good enough for the child to grow up reasonably well. With Joe Biden, it’s a case of the good enough president, meaning: he has some good ideas and, as he’s shown over the years, he’s willing to work hard. But it would appear that, unless you are a tyrant, there aren’t enough powers to really work your will when an entire party, flanked by these strange supporters, are actively working against you and prepared to do anything to get their way.
When the election was confirmed on 7 November 2020, I heard screams and cheers right outside my window in Greenwich Village. I peeked through and asked, “What’s going on?”, and people started yelling, “Biden won!” I ran outside and people were weeping, from happiness and sheer relief. Everybody was just giddy. There was an extra intensity to it, because of our terror.
In the early days of Biden’s presidency, when he was outlining the policies and laying out the bills, and also responding to Covid, he was good, and I was encouraged. With Biden, he always has this ability to make a statement, at a certain point, that’s decent, honourable, even impressive. But then one has to see where it goes. I’m not blaming him for [the setbacks to] the Build Back Better plan, though a part of me wishes that he were more like Lyndon Johnson, who for the passage of the civil rights bill would take these recalcitrant guys aside and say, “I’ve got this dirt on you.”
How has Biden done in his first year? I am still trying to decide. I can of course give you the predictable list of things that I’m beside myself about. Yes, I wanted him to work immediately and insistently to get the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed. I don’t know what he could do about the supreme court, but I do want clean statements. I want to feel that Biden and the other Democrats are working all the time to strategise how to fight back, practically, but also rhetorically. The denunciation of the support of 6 January is all well and good, but please: a pattern, strategies, and resourcefulness. There’s also a lack of inventiveness. The great political movements – the labour movement in its early days, civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ – were imaginative. They find ways to work with, or against, bills. I see grassroots organisations figuring this out, but I don’t yet see the party doing it. Yes, Stacey Abrams is terrific, but she can’t do it all by herself.
Biden has tried to do well, and he has done some decent things, but there’s a limit to what can be done within this institutional structure, the American body politic, when outlaw forces are not only fighting it strategically, but creating a kind of atmosphere of hysteria. There’s this spilling out of hatred, with a kind of glee as well as fury, that is terrifying. I see it in the attacks on voting rights, on critical race theory, on anti-immigrant legislation, I also see it in the language in the supreme court rulings on abortion. We were back to, implicitly and well-nigh explicitly: how dare you women think you have primary rights to your body? I’ve heard many black and brown people, and women, say, “My god they hate us so much.” It’s a kind of venom linked with a desire for vengeance on all of us for not just wanting these rights, but thinking we deserve them.
It’s unfair to imagine that one man, even if he’s the president, could rein in all these forces. A friend of mine said during the Obama election, that if the structures aren’t in place and functioning properly, it almost doesn’t matter who’s president – although when Trump came in, it turned out that it mattered a whole lot. But Biden is, as Obama was, hemmed in by all kinds of systems and structures and power dynamics that make him more of a decoration. I think Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would have presented a much more active, combative style, and that might have helped.
I don’t know how the rest of Biden’s term will play out, but I am in a state of terror. If the Republicans snatch back power in the House and the Senate, which is highly possible, then all bets are off. It’s legitimate to be terrified, and angry, too. We sometimes don’t take account of the sheer shock value of the past year or two and all that that does to your senses, your responses. It’s like we’re multitasking emotionally and intellectually. We’ve got compromised nervous systems.
Joyce Carol Oates: ‘Like battered spouses we’ve been grateful, simply, to have survived’
Joyce Carol Oates published her first book in 1963 and has since published 58 novels, numerous volumes of short stories, poetry and nonfiction plus a number of plays and novellas. Her novels Black Water, What I Lived For and Blonde were finalists for the Pulitzer prize as were two of her short story collections. She taught creative writing at Princeton University for 36 years until 2014, where her students included the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer
For a majority of Americans, Biden’s First Year has been most precious for what it wasn’t: Trump’s Fifth Year. Any discontent or disappointment with Joe Biden is immediately qualified by a gesture of resignation, a roll of the eyes – but at least he isn’t Trump!
Like battered spouses in a combat zone of a household we’ve been grateful – simply – to have survived the traumatic Trump years. Any Democrat, indeed virtually anyone who was not Trump, including Senator Mitt Romney, even that scion of a largely discredited political family, Jeb Bush, would have been welcome as president. Never have I witnessed such desperation among friends, university colleagues, students and random strangers as in the weeks leading to the 2020 election – the feeling that, if Trump were re-elected, the United States would become uninhabitable, a white-nationalist state resembling South Africa with a corrupt rightwing ruling class tyrannising a large, diverse, but politically fragmented population.
(Talk of leaving the country if Trump had been re-elected for – where, exactly? Ireland is most frequently cited, followed by New Zealand, Canada. So far as I know, no one has made even preliminary plans.)
Unfortunately for Joe Biden, as for us all, Biden’s first year has overlapped with the second, protracted year of the Covid-19 pandemic, which stretches before us like a nightmare Sahara without a horizon, all shimmering mirage of fear if not outright terror. It has been the devious Republican strategy – cynical, malicious, in some quarters highly successful – to resist public health measures such as vaccine and masking mandates, in order to “make Biden look bad”, with the result that the pandemic prevails, like a rolling toxic mist over the country. Political energies that might be directed elsewhere are continually deflected toward Covid-19, an immense black hole sucking up the patience and good will of the electorate.
Younger Americans, those who identify themselves as progressive, are increasingly critical of Biden for his bipartisanship and willingness to compromise with the opposition; their hearts lie still with Bernie Sanders, and they will not easily forget. (The young daughter of a friend of mine, a Bernie Sanders supporter, pressed her hands over her ears when I asked for opinions on Joe Biden’s first year as president – “If you keep talking about Biden, I’m going to run out of the room.”) Supporters of Trump are fierce in their belief in Trump’s “big lie” – that he’d won the 2020 election, not Biden – so determined to thwart Biden they are willing to risk death by refusing to be vaccinated or to take Covid precautions prescribed by public health officials. Indeed, resisting Biden even when it’s in the interests of their constituents has been a sort of loyalty oath for conservatives: far more Republicans are dying of Covid than Democrats, a testimony to the bizarre nature of rabidly polarised politics in the US.
Many of us who’d voted for Biden had in fact preferred other Democrats – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, to name just two – but were happy, indeed impassioned, to vote for the Democrat who’d seemed most likely to prevail against Trump: “beggars can’t be choosers” is an adage uniquely suited for the politics of expediency. Despite the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law (his chief achievement), as well as his handling of the Covid crisis and a rebooting of much-needed American involvement in global climate change reform, Joe Biden has been disadvantaged by being, in contrast to his predecessor, a low-key, non-self-dramatising personality. He has been hampered by his very nature: hoping to unify, not divide; hoping to “reach out” to all Americans with policies of generosity and inclusiveness; unexciting to the media, which crave agitation and unrest, and find mere competency, honesty, and empathy boring. On social media it’s outrage and misinformation that capture the attention of the crowd, not so much diligence, hard work, integrity. US journalism is guided by the cynical adage: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Consequently, mainstream media has been unkind to Biden virtually since the start of his presidency; cable news has been pitiless.
However, Joe Biden will likely prevail, in his stubbornly idealistic if unsensational way, and come to be valued, like Jimmy Carter, Dwight Eisenhower, and Harry Truman, as presidents underestimated and undervalued in their time; taken for granted, even scorned, most appreciated and honoured in retrospect.