War by other means

Joe Biden, with his palpable empathy, will be a tough opponent for Donald Trump

1206799626 Flag-bearer of change: Joe Biden has described the November election as a “battle for the soul of the nation” | Getty Images

Who would have imagined that the ‘Biden for President’ campaign would be launched from the basement of the candidate’s home? In the era of Covid-induced quarantine and social distancing, the rituals of political campaigning are playing out from strange new locations.

“Joe [Biden] has the character and the experience to guide us through one of our darkest times and heal us through a long recovery.” —Barack Obama, former US president
“If Biden plays his cards right, the death of the traditional presidential campaign will turn out to be a blessing in disguise.” —Lis Smith, Democratic political strategist, in The New York Times

Instead of the big, raucous rallies which are part of American political life, former vice president Joe Biden has been conducting a series of virtual meetings with donors and supporters. This reporter was privy to one such meeting organised by Shekar Narasimhan, chairman and founder of the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Victory Fund, the first and only Asian American Super PAC (political action committee). Present along with Biden at the meeting were high-profile decision makers like Senator Kamala Harris, Congressman Ami Bera and former US ambassador to India Richard Verma, speaking from the intimacy of their own homes.

With the sound of Canada geese honking from the pond in the background, Biden spoke from his home office: “My prayers are with all those who are scared or sick or grieving and struggling just to get by.” He spoke about the large number of Americans who lost their lives to the pandemic. “It’s infuriating. More than that, it’s heartbreaking to think how much fear, how much loss, how much agony could have been avoided if the president had not wasted so much time in taking responsibility.”

For Biden, who on June 6 won the nomination of the Democratic party in the presidential election scheduled for November 3, the fight against President Donald Trump is very personal, all-consuming, and a “battle for the soul of the nation”. It is indeed a triumphant moment—he won the gruelling race for the Democratic nomination. If this were a video action game, we would have to give him points for persistence, persistence and persistence as he battled more than 20 contenders—some weak and some strong—until he became the last man standing in his third bid for presidency.

All of his former opponents including Senators Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg have coalesced behind him in a massive show of strength. Biden’s last big battle was with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who has a huge following and a progressive agenda. The two have come together, with Sanders endorsing Biden in a friendly virtual meeting.

All these formidable contenders now support Biden, forming a powerful network. Biden has also received ringing endorsements and support from former president Barack Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. “Joe has the character and the experience to guide us through one of our darkest times and heal us through a long recovery,” said Obama. “I know he’ll surround himself with good people—experts, scientists, military officials who actually know how to run the government and care about doing a good job running the government, and know how to work with our allies, and who will always put the American people’s interests above their own.”

Throwing caution to the wind: President Trump takes a tour of a medical swab manufacturing unit | AP Throwing caution to the wind: President Trump takes a tour of a medical swab manufacturing unit | AP

Biden has pledged to select a female vice president, and Harris is a strong contender. She is solidly behind Biden and has emphasised the importance of a Democratic victory at a time when Trump might get the chance to nominate yet another judge to the supreme court, and radically alter its delicate balance. “Who is president of the United States matters on this very important issue of the supreme court,” said Harris. “Joe understands what’s at stake, and has supported justices who believe in upholding all the rights that we have fought for and care about and rely on.”

People know Biden by his actions in the White House for eight years as vice president and as a senator for 36 years. To many people, he is simply ‘Joe’ who will watch out for the underdog and the middle class. As he says, “I’ll make sure everyone in this country is treated with dignity, respect. My dad used to say, ‘Joey, everybody’—and he meant it—everybody is entitled to be treated with respect, be it the guys who shine your shoes or the president of the hotel chain.’ We have a strong and resilient safety net, and we have to reconstruct to keep us going when hard times hit.” After losing his son Beau to a brain tumour in 2015, he created in his private capacity the Biden Foundation, the Biden Cancer Initiative, the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware.

Verma recollected how Biden built the inclusive and diverse staff of the senate foreign relations committee. “He listened and gave everyone a chance. And, of course, I saw him work so hard during the day, and then take that train back to Delaware each and every night for decades just so he could spend time with his family.”

The Biden campaign has received more than 2,100 endorsements from current and former senators, representatives, governors, state representatives, state senators, community leaders and national security professionals. For once, Trump—a hugely divisive force—has unintentionally acted as a unifying glue, bringing together all of them.

Age of outrage: People protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis | AFP Age of outrage: People protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis | AFP

But how will this play out in November, especially with Covid-19 completely upsetting the best laid plans of both parties? The pandemic sneaked into the country, unfazed by walls and borders and immigration protocols. It has become a living nightmare, killing 1.32 lakh Americans and infecting 29.83 lakh as on July 6, and the numbers continue to rise.

Trump’s bragging rights have been seriously compromised. His USP was the economy and the healthy stockmarket numbers, which now lie in a shambles. The American economy has been decimated by the pandemic. Many parts of the country are shuttered and businesses lie in tatters with more than 38 million people losing their jobs.

Even as many cities attempt to reopen, there are long lines outside food banks, and the curve has not flattened in many states. Underlying all this is the fact that thousands of American lives which were lost could have been saved by more prompt action and preparation. A study by Columbia University researchers shows that more than 36,000 deaths could have been averted had social distancing measures been put in place just one week earlier.

Trump has been anxious to reclaim the economy in time for the elections but the virus has not been supportive. Schools and businesses remain largely shut as governors debate how much to reopen. The main problem is the woefully inadequate testing and tracking, which has hurt the reopening of businesses, hampering economic resurgence. Polls indicate that Trump is trailing Biden in the states he had won handsomely in 2016.

So much depends on the vagaries of the pandemic. Will there be a second wave or even a third wave? Will people be able to return to school and to work? Can millions of tests be done every single day?

As president, the buck stops with Trump. But as he has famously said, “I do not take responsibility at all.”

Biden is hard at work in the background, preparing his multiethnic army of supporters and his legislative arsenal to combat Trump. It is a role he has been rehearsing for all his life. Despite the pandemic and the inability to hold live rallies and meet voters face to face, he has readied a full agenda.

It is by no means going to be easy as Trump remains a formidable opponent. There are also so many variables like the sexual harassment case brought against Biden by former staffer Tara Reade which could trip up the campaign.

Is there a silver lining to this contactless political campaign? “If Joe Biden plays his cards right, the death of the traditional presidential campaign will turn out to be a blessing in disguise,” wrote Democratic political strategist Lis Smith in The New York Times. “The 77-year-old Mr. Biden, whom the president derisively calls ‘Sleepy Joe’, can become the hottest bad boy and disrupter in the media game.”

Smith said being freed of an expensive campaign involving constant travel would help Biden, and so would his palpable empathy, which was his greatest asset as a campaigner. “Politicians can learn a lot of tricks—talking points, debate and interview strategies—but personal warmth is something that cannot be taught. It also happens to be a trait that translates well on TV.”

The latest RealClearPolitics national average poll shows Biden with 49.6 per cent support, while 40.9 per cent said they would vote for Trump. It is to be seen which way the strong Indian American community votes. While most Indian Americans tend to vote blue, those who follow Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be tempted to follow Trump to the voting booth, particularly after his successful visit to India and his many beliefs which are similar to the Modi philosophy. It remains to be seen whether Biden’s critical views on certain key Modi initiatives like the abrogation of Article 370, the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which recently appeared on his campaign website, will have an impact on the voting preferences of Indian Americans.

Biden realises the importance of getting all Democrats and independents to the table for a unified response to Trump. He and Sanders have created six ‘unity task forces’ dealing with economy, education, immigration, health care, climate change and criminal justice reform. These six committees will meet ahead of the Democratic National Convention to make recommendations to the DNC Platform Committee and to Biden directly.

Two Indian Americans are co-chairing the health panel: former surgeon general Vivek Murthy and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington. Varshini Prakash, executive director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, the progressive group behind the Green New Deal, is on the climate control task force.

The fabric of America is woven with many different people and races and Biden’s challenge is to bring them all to the polls to vote blue in November. “Biden is Donald Trump’s worst nightmare, and you don’t have to take my word for it,” said Ajay Bhutoria of Fremont, California. “Even Trump’s own advisors have admitted he is terrified of running against Biden.”

Bhutoria, who is a political activist and fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, is on the Biden National Finance Committee. He says the choice for the American people could not be clearer: “Donald Trump is a man of chaos and cruelty; Joe Biden is a man of character and compassion. Trump has failed every test of presidential leadership and has broken just about every promise he’s made, including during this public health crisis.”

South Asians for Biden is a new grassroots volunteer group which has several young Indian Americans anxious to bring out the voters for Biden and ensure a Democratic victory in November. It has 15 chapters across the US. Neha Dewan, a New York lawyer who was previously the national co-chair of South Asians for Hillary, is the group’s national director. “We are a national grassroots organisation that is dedicated to engaging, educating and mobilising the south Asian community to get Joe Biden elected in November,” she said. The teams are headed by regional representatives and perform everything from outreach to voter registration, and include everyone from college kids to seniors, from heavy hitters to those just entering politics.

Indian Americans, as part of the 21-million strong Asian American Pacific Islander community, form a powerful segment of the voter base. It is the fastest growing racial group in America and has 20 members in the Congress. It has doubled voter registration numbers from two million to four million people. It is solidly behind Biden.

As Congresswoman Judy Chu told supporters during the recent event with Biden, “We are the swing vote in key swing states, adding congressional districts, all across the nation. And that is why I like to say we’ve gone from being marginalised to becoming the margin of victory.”

The death of an unarmed, handcuffed black man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota has turned the whole of America into an angry tinderbox with riots in many cities and the demand for racial justice in America. In an emotional plea, the dead man’s brother told America to vote in November to change the status quo. Biden is beloved in the African American community.

Asked about a single quality which makes Biden eligible to be president, Verma said, “It’s the humanity of Joe Biden. His decency, his kindness, his integrity, his caring for others. He exhibits that empathy, that character that is the best of us and it is that character that we see in the frontline health care providers. It’s that character that is the soul of Joe Biden, but also the soul of America.”

The author is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina.