Election 2020

Are the Democrats Downplaying Biden’s Record?

They keep touting him as a man of “character” and “empathy.” But that may not be enough to define him for the electorate.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
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Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden signs required documents for receiving the Democratic nomination for president Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 14. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Who really is Joe Biden? As the Democrats’ first-ever virtual convention got underway Monday night, headliners from former first lady Michelle Obama to Sen. Bernie Sanders assaulted the putative evils of Donald Trump and his administration—inveighing against the president’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and economic inequality. 

But throughout the big show, the party’s proposed alternative to Trump, Biden, seemed to come off as more of a character actor than a leading man.

Oh, there were plenty of nice things said about the presumptive Democratic nominee, mostly about what a great and genuine guy he is. “Decent.” “Empathetic.” “Respectful.” Such words were often heard during the two-hour TV spectacle—usually at the tail end of an attack on Trump. “Joe knows what it’s like to struggle,” Obama said in her keynote address. “His life is testament to getting back up … to help us heal and guide us forward.” “I mean, you can’t fake that kind of a smile,” former Marine Capt. Kevin Penn said in another video appearance. Yet barely a specific detail was delivered about what Biden achieved in a half-century as U.S. senator and vice president. Indeed, the Democrats were more than an hour into the convention before Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer mentioned, briefly, Biden’s leadership along with President Barack Obama on the 2009 bailout of General Motors and Chrysler.

This continued a trend that Sen. Kamala Harris began last week, when in her debut remarks as Biden’s vice presidential choice she also devoted most of her attention to attacking Trump and spent very little time talking about the long record of the man she was now working for, except to extol her relationship with Biden’s late son Beau, with whom she served as a state attorney general, and what a fine father Joe was.

To a certain extent, this is a deliberate strategy, some Democratic tacticians said. “The election is first and foremost about character,” one senior Biden campaign advisor told Foreign Policy. They say Trump’s divisive and dangerous behavior—especially his identification with white supremacists and his hints at rejecting the 2020 electoral results—is on the ballot even more than his policies. Hence the continuing emphasis on Biden’s decency, humanity, and devotion to American democracy. “At its most basic, this election is about preserving our democracy,” Sanders said. “During this president’s term, the unthinkable has become normal.” 

But some Biden advocates said they found the current approach more than a little irritating—and risky in that it leaves Biden somewhat undefined. “They really ought to make Biden into something more than a father figure,” said Michael Haltzel, a former senior Biden advisor when the then-Delaware senator was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Haltzel argues that many of Biden’s positions over the past four decades were gutsy, smart, and prescient—and will provide the needed positive definition of the candidate that remains somewhat lacking even as he remains well ahead in most polls.

“It’s a bit like a prevent defense in the NFL. Do no harm. But I think the numbers [favoring Biden] are not so overwhelming as they seem,” Haltzel said. He added that Trump, meanwhile, will make a big show of his accomplishments in office—in particular last week’s historic deal normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. “You can count on Trump calling the UAE and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to the White House for some big show this fall. … That’s another reason for talking about Biden’s remarkable record on foreign policy.” 

Starting Tuesday night, the Biden team intends to go into more detail about his array of new plans for the country and his many past votes and accomplishments, first as an influential U.S. senator who served for 36 years and then as Obama’s vice president for eight years. But this will amount to some careful cherry-picking, since Democrats also recognize that Biden’s long voting record is something of a political minefield at a time of racial tension and global retrenchment. It is littered with deeply unpopular votes that may only remind people that the 77-year-old Biden harks from a prior era—such as his 1970s opposition to desegregation busing; his spearheading of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which overloaded prisons with first offenders and long-serving “three strikes” inmates; his vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages (he later reversed his position); and his tentative vote for the disastrous Iraq War. 

As Michelle Obama put it in her speech with somewhat surprising bluntness: “Now Joe is not perfect, and he’d be the first to tell you that, but there is no perfect candidate, no perfect president. And his ability to learn and grow—we find in that the kind of humility and maturity that so many of us yearn for right now,” she said. 

Such backhanded compliments may only serve to reinforce the Republican critique that Biden has never been considered quite presidential timber—that he’s “Sleepy Joe” or “Slow Joe,” as Trump likes to call him, and out of touch with the times. Many of his greatest accomplishments in foreign policy—for example his leadership in taking on Slobodan Milosevic’s murderous campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s—predate 9/11 and hark back to a more interventionist time that Americans are less comfortable with now. “Yes, 20 years ago is like a hundred years ago. I agree,” said Haltzel, who today teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But it doesn’t change the fact that Biden is an incredibly substantive guy—in fact he is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met.” 

Indeed, many political observers would agree that in many respects Biden’s restraint and prudence, especially while serving with Obama, look prescient now. On Afghanistan, Biden gave cautious counsel to Obama to rebuff the Pentagon and not to add too many U.S. troops—that nation-building was a bridge too far. “In Afghanistan he’s been proven right, that instead of doing this overall nation-building which hasn’t worked, it’s basically about suppression of the terrorists,” Haltzel said. 

“It was really an attempt to focus on why we were there in the first place, and for better or worse it wasn’t to remake the country in some better way,” one of Biden’s top foreign-policy advisors, Antony Blinken, told me in 2019. “It was to deal with the threat posed by al Qaeda with a much narrower counterterrorism campaign. He was convinced early on that it was beyond our capacity to remake the country in a sustainable way.”

Biden was, in addition, one of the leaders in the Obama administration in arguing for tough sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has sought to restore to the G-7 conferences.

The former vice president’s position on Iraq has also been often misunderstood and mischaracterized, his supporters say. Biden was not a gung-ho supporter of invasion; in fact, he pressed hard for a resolution in the run-up to the war that would have required the George W. Bush administration to delay the use of force until the United Nations approved a new resolution to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein or to ascertain that the threat was “so grave that the use of force is necessary.” The resolution failed largely because Biden’s own fellow Democrat, then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, sided with administration hawks by supporting a resolution that permitted Bush to move ahead with his invasion plans by declaring diplomacy to be useless.

In an interview with me in late 2004, Biden laid out what later became Obama’s own position on Iran, saying that George W. Bush should open up direct diplomacy with Tehran “because he has no alternative.” He also insisted, long before most other senators, that Bush start up bilateral talks with North Korea—a policy that Trump later followed, albeit with little success. 

And while Biden’s support for tough crime bills that may have disadvantaged Black Americans draws criticism now, some members of the African American community were with him at the time. “For example, the 1994 crime bill that he gets pilloried for—more than two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for it,” said Haltzel. “There was a real crime wave then and a lot of drugs and gangs were coming up, and the Black community was overwhelmingly in favor of it. And his support of the Violence Against Women Act is a huge thing.”

But in the end Biden himself wishes to focus far more on his plans for the future than his past, analysts say. And among those who have gone into the most specifics about his programs is none other than his fiercest primary rival, Sanders, who in his speech Monday night outlined Biden’s support for progressive programs such as raising the minimum wage to $15, making it easier for workers to join unions, lowering the eligibility age for Medicare, dramatically expanding health care, and “transitioning to 100 percent clean electricity over the next 15 years.” 

The candidate’s goal, his strategists say, is to build a new presidential Biden on the considerable architecture of the old.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh