At moments of historic national crisis, America has had a knack for getting lucky. The first month of Joe Biden's presidency suggests that, thank goodness, we have gotten lucky once again.
When the nation split in two in 1860, there was no reason to expect that Abraham Lincoln was suited to the herculean task of restoring the Union. "There is no describing his lengthy awkwardness, nor the uncouthness of his movement," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne after meeting President Lincoln in 1862. He was "the most shut-mouthed man who ever lived," wrote Lincoln's longtime law partner, William Herndon.
Lincoln was hardly the only badly underestimated American president to take office with the country in profound trouble. Franklin Roosevelt took the presidential oath in March 1933 with America in free fall, three years into economic collapse. He had been derided by those in the know as a privileged lightweight. Roosevelt, sniffed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, had a "second-class intellect," even if he had a first-rate temperament.
When Roosevelt died in April 1945, the new president inherited an ongoing world war and a European continent in rubble, and he faced a Soviet Union bent on occupying or dominating wide swaths of the globe. A failed haberdasher once dismissed by The New York Times as a "rube," Harry Truman was mocked for what was his supposed lack of worldliness. "To err is Truman," was just one phrase deployed by his political opponents to ridicule the president whose resolve and good judgment helped salvage Europe and safeguard America's security in the 75 years since.
As familiar a figure as Biden has been for the past half-century, it has been easy to sell him short, to somehow overlook the qualities that equip him so well to steer the country through an existential crisis that is medical, economic and civic all at the same time. We knew Biden, or thought we did, as the senator-since-forever who reliably went on at too-great length on C-SPAN. He was the well-credentialed candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who could not get out of the starting gate in 1988 or in 2008. As Barack Obama's vice president, he was the sturdy if garrulous understudy to a president with historic magnetism. During most of the 2020 primary campaign, he drew small, tepid audiences that could only generously be termed "crowds." On the debate stage with his primary rivals, he seemed awkward and out of place, vying for attention with candidates with more pizazz, who took turns as the media darling of the month while poor old Joe stumbled and teetered, seemingly on the brink of one more flameout as a presidential contender. Then, after returning from the dead to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, "the former guy," as Biden calls Donald Trump, peddled the line that Biden had lost mental acuity, a bogus claim that was the product of crude mendacity and wishful thinking.
Many Americans bought it. Most didn't.
The blizzard of emergency bills and executive orders aimed at wrestling the pandemic to the ground, rescuing the American economy and shepherding Americans through their suffering is only one reason to be grateful for the Biden presidency one month into it. Those who watched last week's CNN town hall saw just what the proverbial doctor ordered: a humane, empathetic and deeply decent man who was immersed in policy and in command of the levers of power. Reassuring mothers, consoling a child, respecting the legitimacy of skeptics' concerns and kibbitzing with a professor who offered to teach him Yiddish (Biden evidently already has a head start), the president dispensed balm to a nation sorely in need of it. His visit on Saturday to former Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole, 97 years old and battling stage 4 lung cancer, was just exactly the kind of menschlichkeit — Yiddish for "humanity" — that America needs to see modeled.
The country has an immense amount of work ahead of it. But on the quality of its new leader, at least, we can at long last take a breather.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast. To find out more about Jeff Robbins and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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