To say there’s unease among Democrats about presumptive nominee Joe Biden is to understate the obvious. There’s a cottage industry of kvetching. He’s old, he rambles, he can’t relate to younger voters, his digital presence is doleful, his social media mediocre, his Latino outreach lousy.
Democrats are of course congenitally inclined to fret, doubt, and second-guess. Actually, however, Biden’s political stock is currently underrated. He handled the one recent controversy with potentially serious political consequences — Tara Reade’s allegation that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 — credibly, denying the account without disparaging his accuser.
It’s hard to determine the truth in these situations, but several things are fair to say. Although Biden has been too touchy, he has not over his long public career had a reputation as a sexual groper or assaulter. Secondly, an accusation like this one usually gives rise to others if this sort of loutish behavior is indeed characteristic of a man. That hasn’t occurred here. Absent that, or something turning up to validate Reade’s evolved-over-time claims, the political risk for Biden is diminished. Lastly, it’s hard to imagine anyone who rejects Biden based on a single sexual-assault allegation opting for Trump, given the multiple sexual misconduct accusations leveled against him.
Look beyond that controversy, and the very qualities that some wrongly thought would render Biden a poor primary-season candidate should prove strengths in this time of coronavirus. The left may desire a perpetual pugilist, and the Trump base is still in thrall to its combative champion, but that kind of politics loses its appeal in the midst or immediate aftermath of a pandemic.
With the contagion putting incredible stresses on everyday Americans, they long for a return to normality. But such a return requires governmental competence, and that takes someone who understands the public sector and can make it work. That’s what the public is currently rewarding.
Just look at the governors who have gotten strong marks for leadership. They aren’t partisan ideologues. In Ohio, Republican Mike DeWine has listened to the experts and acted prudently. In New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo is a detail-oriented governmental mechanic. In Massachusetts, Republican Charlie Baker is a low-key facts-and-data problem solver.
At this late stage in his career, Biden has the same persona, the same admixture of skills. He can rightfully point out that, during the last administration, he was the one President Obama put in charge of important administration initiatives — a role he performed well.
During the primary campaign, Biden was criticized for saying he could work with Senate Republicans. That professed ability obviously doesn’t lessen the need for a strenuous effort to win control of the Senate. Still, in the general election, an interest in bipartisan cooperation should play well with middle America.
That’s not to say that this, or any, incumbent president is easily ousted. But Donald Trump’s act has grown old and exhausting. His administration is an exercise in chaotic incompetence. He himself simply can’t refrain from behavior that’s especially off-putting in fraught times: buck-passing, self-praise, self-pity, personal attacks, and sempiternal pettiness.
But the difference goes far beyond that. Under the sloganeering pretense of making America great again, Trump plays the dark chords of difference and division, resentment and rancor. His pugnacious politics are about stoking populist anger for electoral purposes.
Biden, too, is egotistical, but not in the all-consuming way of Trump. A man who has suffered more than his share of tragedy, he’s a genuinely empathic figure. His campaign isn’t about aggravating divisions and resentments, but rather appealing to shared values and common bonds. He is trying to forge a greater sense of national purpose, to find ways to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.
Yes, he’s long-winded, and yes, he’ll make some mistakes, commit some gaffes, say some things that are off-key. But those mistakes won’t reflect racial bias or nativist animus or be designed to heighten American cultural antagonisms. He won’t divide to conquer.
At core, Biden is an able political adult betting on basic American decency as he tries to return an off-kilter country to normal. And that’s the right profile for these troubled times.
Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.