Traditional liberals of a certain age, like myself, have been disappointed too many times in the last 50+ years to get too excited about anything too quickly. Liberalism seemed to be in the ascendant in 1965, but the Vietnam War, economic disruption and racial conflict reduced the Democratic vote by more than 15 percentage points four years later, and only four times since 1964 has a Democratic presidential candidate won a majority of the popular vote. Bill Clinton moved the party into the center, signing NAFTA and "ending welfare as we know it," and Barack Obama passed up the opportunity to try to restore a safer, saner financial system after the 2008 crash. Yet I felt enormous encouragement yesterday when I read an article in The New York Times on how Joe Biden makes decisions. It told a very interesting story, both generationally and historically.
The Silent generation attended college in the greatest intellectual era of American higher education, before the events of the late 1960s began a long decline. It is not clear how much Joe Biden reads, although he certainly had plenty of time for it spending four hours a day on AMTRAK during his Senate career, but the article tells us that he loves discussion and data. In contrast to presidents like Johnson, Reagan, and George W Bush, who liked short meetings without much debate, he interrogates his advisers for an hour or two. More importantly, he is not satisfied with pat or jargon-filled answers. "Let's talk plain English here" is one of his refrains, according to the article. His top aides have learned that they must prepare very carefully indeed for meetings and that they are supposed to investigate issues with the same determination that he does. He was rather angry, apparently, when senior aides at a meeting on the situation on the southern border had to admit that none of them had been down there to see what was happening themselves. The article also suggests that while some of his aides may owe their jobs in part to their demographic, their identity will not serve them as an excuse in office. He was reportedly very angry with HHS Secretary Xavier Bercerra when Bercerra could not answer questions about the care of migrant children.
Like Barack Obama, Biden has drawn on the Boom generation for much of his Cabinet. Obama appointed Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Eric Holder, and Larry Summers, and Biden's Boomers include Merrick Garland, Janet Yellen, Lloyd Austin, Xavier Bercerra, Alejandro Mayorkas, and Tom Vilsack. Yet while Obama's Boomers had far more Washington experience than he did, Biden's have had less, and he remembers the US before the Boomers began to disrupt it. He is apparently insisting that they make their policy case based upon facts--a great leveler, potentially, in our deeply divided world.
For various reasons, the mainstream media has adopted the position--also popular in academia--that politics are a simple matter of right and wrong that allow for little debate. Michael D. Shear, Katie Rogers and Annie Karni, the authors of the Times story, expressed distress that Biden had taken some time to think about allowing more refugees into the country. Like so many of us in our 70s, Biden apparently feels too old to worry too much about current political or intellectual fashion. His careful, data-based approach to policy is what the nation needs after decades of partisan, faith-based debate, and I deeply regret that we couldn't find anyone under 78 to re-introduce it. Biden is the first, and surely the last, president from the Silent generation If he can find a way to make his approach clear to the younger generations, he can perhaps get our politics back on track after nearly three decades of Boomer-dominated political decline.