WASHINGTON — Moments after becoming president on August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford said, "Our long national nightmare is over." Having served a quarter-century in Congress, he understood that presidents are to "take care" that laws produced by the first branch of government are "faithfully executed." The nation in 1974 was eager for a collegial respite from the gladiatorial strife that had consumed the country during urban disorders and the Watergate stew of scandals.
Joe Biden's election will end national nightmare 2.0, the nation's second domestic debacle in two generations. Hell, Thomas Hobbes supposedly said, is truth seen too late, and in 2020 the nation, having seen it in the nick of time, will select for the Oval Office someone who, having served 36 years 16 blocks to the east, knows this: A complex nation cannot be governed well without the lubricating conciliations of a healthy legislative life.
Biden won the Democrats' nomination by soundly defeating rivals who favored — or, pandering, said they favored — a number of niche fixations (e.g., abolishing ICE, defunding police). He clinched his nomination earlier and easier than did the winners in the Democrats' most recent intensely contested nomination competitions (Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton in 2008; Clinton against Bernie Sanders in 2016).
Biden does not endorse Medicare for All: He understands, as some competitors for the nomination amazingly did not, that for several decades organized labor's most important agenda has been negotiating employer-provided health care as untaxed compensation. Similarly, Biden does not oppose fracking, which provides many of the 300,000 Pennsylvania jobs supported by the oil and gas industry, and many others in Ohio and elsewhere. He understands, as some progressives seem not to, that presidential elections are won not by pleasing the most intense faction but by assembling a temperate coalition.
Biden has not endorsed packing the Supreme Court: When Franklin Roosevelt, after carrying 46 of 48 states in 1936, tried that maneuver, the blowback in the 1938 congressional elections erased his liberal legislating majority in Congress, and coalitions of conservative (mostly Southern) Democrats and Republicans prevailed until President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide produced a liberal congressional majority — briefly.
Biden came to the Senate eight years later, in the aftermath. In 1965 and 1966, Democrats wielding lopsided congressional majorities (295 to 140 in the House, 68 to 32 in the Senate) had lunged beyond majority public opinion. Voters' retribution included Republican victories in five of the next six presidential elections. Also, Biden was vice president in 2010 when the electorate, after just two years of unified government under Democrats, ended it.
One of Biden's closest confidants, who has an agreeable preference for anonymity, says that Biden was initially ambivalent about seeking the 2020 nomination but "Charlottesville put him over the edge." The confidant refers to the violence provoked by the August 2017 anti-Semitic demonstrators, and to Donald Trump's assessment that there were "very fine people on both sides."
The confidant calls Biden "a relief pitcher — he's warming up in the bullpen right now," preparing an administration with "a broad array of people." The confidant recommends taking seriously Biden's campaign's slogan "Building Back Better." The "Back" acknowledges the national desire for reassurance "that the world as they know it is recoverable."
Many of Trump's current campaign ads portray a dark, fraying America. They evoke the "hell hole" America that he described in 2015 that presaged his inaugural address reference to "American carnage." Biden's optimistic ads suggest that although it is not now, it soon could again be, "morning in America."
Trump apologists say that prior to COVID-19, all was well. "All" means only economic metrics: An American is supposedly homo economicus, interested only in consumption, to the exclusion of civic culture. And never mind a pre-pandemic $1 trillion deficit — at full employment.
Such apologists insist that Democratic administrations jeopardize prosperity. So, these apologists are not merely projecting their one-dimensional selves onto their more well-rounded compatriots, they are ignoring 120 years of inconvenient data (as noted by Jeff Sommer in The New York Times): "[S]ince 1900 the stock market has fared far better under Democratic presidents, with a 6.7 percent annualized return for the Dow Jones industrial average compared with just 3.5 percent under Republicans."
Nixon's "imperial presidency" included Ruritanian White House uniforms, which did not survive nationwide snickering. Gerald Ford's presidential modesty produced reports of something that was remarkable only because it was remarked upon: At breakfast, Ford popped his own English muffins into the presidential toaster. Forty-six years later, an exhausted nation is again eager for manifestations of presidential normality.
George F. Will is a Washington Post columnist.
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