Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 quite handily. This despite the fact that he was young, black, had served only a brief tenure in the Senate, and was named “Barack Hussein Obama.”
How did that happen? Well, we were desperate. We were coming off of eight years in which the country had been led by a dynastic representative of the Washington establishment — by George W. Bush as guided by the “steady hand” of his reassure-the-centrists-with-a-wise-old-insider vice president, Dick Cheney. And those eight years were a lethal, calamitous, treasury-bankrupting disaster. The nation was bogged down in two ongoing wars that could not be won, or ended, or explained. The American economy had ground to a halt, dragging down the entire global economy and putting us on the precipice of another great depression. The budget surplus Bush had inherited had been turned into massive deficits with nothing to show for them in the ways of infrastructure or public services.
Heck, these people had proved they didn’t even have the capacity or interest to rescue Americans dying in flood waters.
It was time to try something else. And young, black, first-term Sen. Barack Obama was something else.
He was an inspiring speaker and a gifted, smart campaigner. But the main reason that Obama quickly rose to the top in a crowded field of Democratic candidates was that he had, from the beginning, opposed the invasion of Iraq.
This was, in retrospect, not at all a hard call. It was not at all a hard call at the time, either, in 2002 and 2003. It was an obvious, huge unforced error that — just as was easily and widely foreseen — has cost thousands of American lives, hasd ended hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, has cost more than $1 trillion of American tax money, and has destabilized an entire region, spawning new terrorist groups targeting America and its allies all over the world.
On the other hand …
No. There is no other hand. The invasion of Iraq was just a horrible, horrible mistake. All of the arguments made or accepted in its favor at the time appeared as false and as foolish by 2008 as they ought to have appeared to everyone in 2002.
So we elected Barack Obama president because he had not made or endorsed that deadly, wasteful foolishness. And we figured that maybe a guy who had avoided that mistake might also be able to avoid other massive mistakes like the ones that had plunged us into the Great Recession.
But what about Obama’s running mate, longtime Delaware Sen. Joe Biden? Biden was a fixture of the “blob” — the foreign policy establishment that had either enthusiastically endorsed the invasion of Iraq or else timidly assented to it for fear of looking politically “weak.” As a senator, he had also been the driving force behind a bankruptcy bill that, by 2007, now looked like it should have been a flashing red warning light for the bursting of the bubble that put millions of Americans out of their homes and millions more out of their jobs.
The candidate we had supported because he promised Something Else had chosen as his running mate a man who represented and embodied More of the Same.
What was up with that?
Some pundits at the time described Obama’s selection of Biden as a “reassuring establishment figure,” akin to George W. Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney in 2000. (Although Cheney actually selected himself.) This claim was based on the confused presumption that in 2008 — five years into the quagmire fiasco of Iraq and still accelerating down the Great Recession — there was anything “reassuring” about “establishment figures.”
But Obama’s selection of Joe Biden was meant to be reassuring, it just wasn’t meant to be reassuring in that way. What it signaled, rather, was that the hoped-for change of a generational shift in American politics did not mean that older generations would be abandoned or treated as a conquered enemy. Obama was showing old white guys from Scranton that they, too, would have a place and a stake in America’s future, even if they no longer were the default establishment entitled to run the whole thing. They had fought change, resisted change, and prevented change for decades, and now at last we hoped that change was arriving, but it didn’t mean we were going to push them out onto an ice floe to die.
America was going to be led by new faces and new names — younger, less white faces and names — but the older, whiter establishment did not need to fear that this new generation of leadership would turn around and do to them what they had always done to people like Barack Obama. Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate to demonstrate that old centrist white guys like Biden did not need to fear that Obama would treat them with the same dismissive, contemptuous disregard that old centrist white guys like Joe Biden had always shown people like Anita Hill.And Joe Biden, to his credit, seemed to understand this. He embraced this role with gusto, and spent the 2008 campaign and most of the following eight years demonstrating to his fellow old white guys that they, too, could thrive and preserve their dignity and relevance in an America governed by people who were not part of their old white guy establishment. He showed them that they didn’t have to be vindictively terrified of the prospect of an American future in which others enjoyed more than nominal, lip-service equality.
As vice president, Biden took to this role and played it well, helping other old white guys understand that their perpetual instinct to play Creon wasn’t necessary or smart or good. He showed them that it was safe and smart to stop strangling any other potential leaders or citizens in the crib due to the gibbering fear that they might grow to replace us and take away all the things old white guys imagined they were uniquely entitled to claim as theirs and theirs alone.
But now, in 2019, 76-year-old white guy Joe Biden seems to have forgotten all that.
Even worse, he seems to have unlearned the lesson he helped to teach during all his years as vice president. His candidacy seems marked by elements of the same fears and entitlement that Obama once chose him and commissioned him to put to rest. This is all framed elliptically and euphemistically, with vague discussions of “electability” and presumed appeal to disgruntled white guys on mythical Midwestern diner stools. But none of that wholly masks the ugliness of the basic assertion here, that those other candidates — those others — can’t win and can’t be allowed to win. That these women and black, Latino, gay, Dead Cow, non-Boomer, etc., candidates simply aren’t as acceptable or maybe shouldn’t be as acceptable, and that the prospect of one of them becoming the nominee spells doom for the party and the country.
I’ve read many pundits fearfully, semi-reluctantly agreeing with him. They usually phrase this by saying that America “isn’t ready” for a woman president, or a black woman president, or a young smart black senator as president, or a gay intellectual, etc. They assume that we’d all find it reassuring — there’s that word again — to elect a 70-something white guy from the Acela corridor, as though we did not all, every day, see mountains of evidence proving how Very Bad that can turn out to be.
These pundits watch Biden lose an argument with Kamala Harris based on the substance of their respective policies and stances, and then turn around and fret that somehow she is the one playing “identity politics.” FFS that’s dumb. It’s dumb because she’s not. She’s talking law and policy, he’s talking about his innate non-threatening appeal to an ethnic demographic that he presumes can’t hear her words because all they see is identity politics. And it’s dumb because it’s based on the premise that old white guys don’t have an “identity” and therefore, they misthink, old white guys can’t possibly have “identity politics.” And even the best of them can barely manage to use this dumb phrase without appearing like they’re on the verge of completely spazzing out and just yelling “Uppity, uppity, uppity! Politics is for white men, sit down!”
(If you’re attempting to use the phrase “identity politics” to mean anything other than that, it doesn’t. It can’t. It won’t. This is all you’re saying, so if you don’t want to say that, don’t use this phrase. Oh, and also stop obsessively freaking out over everything AOC does or says. Same thing. [Rainbow star flashes by] The more you know!)
And so now we have Joe Biden — the only candidate in the crowded Democratic field who enthusiastically supported the colossal, indefensible decision to invade Iraq, beginning a war that still has no end or purpose in sight 16 years later. And he is running as though this made him more qualified than all these uppity upstarts who were wise enough to have opposed that callous, deadly blunder.
I would prefer someone — anyone — who has had the wisdom to learn from Biden’s mistakes. That would be … reassuring.