Election 2020

How President-Elect Biden Could—Believe It or Not—Help Heal America

For all his flaws, there has never been a better deal-maker on Capitol Hill, colleagues say.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Elaine Chao (center) with her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left), and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
Elaine Chao (center) watches as her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left), and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden participate in a mock swearing-in in the Old Senate Chamber in Washington on Jan. 6, 2015. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The surprisingly close election between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump has only deepened pessimism that America is a hopelessly divided nation. And even as he’s been officially declared president-elect, Biden has seen his acumen for the top job called into question for his entire career—never more than by Trump, who lambasted him for his 47 years in Washington, calling him “Sleepy Joe.” 

But now is a moment when the old way of doing politics—Biden’s way—is about to confront the new. And at a time when it seems Republicans and Democrats can no longer communicate at all, it’s worth noting that in the past five decades no politician has been more effective than Biden at making deals across the aisle. 

Unlike his former boss President Barack Obama, who remained somewhat aloof from Congress and was criticized on that score even by some in his own party, Biden was always the go-to guy in his time as a senator and vice president, relentlessly stalking and schmoozing and looking to make deal after deal, his former colleagues say. “As to Biden’s ‘methodology,’ it ranged from repeatedly buttonholing Members on the Senate floor (or in the Democratic cloakroom) to going down to the Senate gym when he heard that an undecided member was working out there,” said his former Senate aide Michael Haltzel by email. 

These are different times, of course. Trump apparently still refuses to concede the election, and a substantial number of Americans—nearly half of voters—may have trouble even accepting Biden as legitimate. “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” the president tweeted from his motorcade on his way to the golf course on Saturday morning.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in Washington after Trump, notably refrained from congratulating Biden after news networks called the election for the Democratic candidate late Saturday morning. And he has reportedly already pressed Biden to bypass progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders for key cabinet posts and instead pick centrists like Lael Brainard for Treasury and Tony Blinken or Sen. Chris Coons for State if he hopes to work with a Republican Senate. McConnell will also fight fiercely against Biden’s plans to rejoin the Paris climate pact and the Iran nuclear deal. According to the Washington Post, upon his inauguration day 74 days from now, Biden plans to swiftly issue executive orders reversing Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization, repealing the ban on immigration from some Muslim-majority countries, and reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows immigrants called “Dreamers” to remain in the country.

But McConnell’s dominance of the Senate remains unclear. Biden’s presidency will be, in fact, a test case of whether politics can still exist as it once did in the past or whether the polarization is too great to overcome.

Yet there is also a sense that many in the nation are tired of the anger, the divisiveness, and Trump’s tweet-a-minute presidency. They want action, they want calm, and, above all, they want an effective COVID-19 relief package. And if any degree of comity can be restored to Washington, it may be Biden who can do it—as even some of his former Republican Senate colleagues have said.

In an appearance in Wilmington, Delaware, Saturday evening after he was declared president-elect, Biden made an impassioned speech invoking the Bible and calling for a national healing, saying this was an “inflection point” for reclaiming “the soul of America.”

“I’ll call on Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to make those choices with me,” said the president-elect, who will be, at 78, the oldest president ever inaugurated.

Coming together will be no easy task, especially if McConnell—who once famously said his only task was to obstruct Obama and prevent him from getting a second term—becomes majority leader of the Senate again. As Obama’s vice president, Biden was often the one who was called on to reach out to Republicans—for example, obtaining the three votes needed to put Obama’s Recovery Act over the top. Obama was a president who “didn’t have the schmooze gene,” Jonathan Alter wrote in The Center Holds, one of his accounts of the Obama presidency. 

Biden, by contrast, has for decades been one of the biggest glad-handers on Capitol Hill, and he and McConnell have spent hours negotiating budget, deficit, and other bills. As Politico noted, McConnell was the only Senate Republican to attend Biden’s son Beau’s funeral. Before he retired from the Senate in 2011, Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, even urged the Obama White House to bring Biden more into play. “They’d be very smart to bring him more into a role of managing and dealing with Congress,” Gregg told me. “They’ve not done a great job of dealing with Republican members, especially the leadership, Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, and Lamar Alexander. Clearly all three have a great personal relationship with Biden.” 

These relationships go back many decades, Biden advocates say, especially when it came to forging a common front on foreign policy. “In the Balkan crises—Bosnia and Croatia in 1992-95; Kosovo in 1997-99—Biden’s GOP counterparts in leading the push for U.S. military involvement were Bob Dole and John McCain,” said his former Senate aide Haltzel. “Biden traveled to Bosnia with Dole and in subsequent years talked with him several times a week about the Balkan situation.” Haltzel also noted that when it came to NATO enlargement “nothing could be more of an indication of Biden’s bipartisan ability than the fact that the GOP asked him to be floor manager of the bill (March/April 1998) accepting Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary into NATO. That was simply unprecedented. It recognized, first of all, Biden’s unequaled expertise on the subject and, second, the trust they had in him.” 

“He understands governance better than anyone else,” former Republican Sen. and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told me in an interview in 2010, saying it was he who advised Barack Obama to pick Biden as his running mate in 2008. “In particular, he understands Congress.” 

In any case, for Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., a self-described regular guy who has spent most of his political career trying rather desperately to be taken seriously by his peers and the public, this is a golden and crowning moment. He has become only the sixth vice president in U.S. history to be elected outright (rather than succeed a deceased president), following John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. And his victory is a remarkable capstone to an improbable career in which his several bids to become president appeared to be done with four years ago when Hillary Clinton edged him aside—and ultimately lost to Trump.

Now he needs to do what he has said he will do: heal a badly broken country.

Update, Nov. 7, 2020: This story has been updated with Biden’s remarks as president-elect.

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