Rob Hutton
5 min readNov 3, 2020


The Anti-Politics of Joe Biden

There is a certain stink which losing US presidential candidates give off. They are typically senior figures within their party, people who have put in their time and have a long list of credentials. They likely won the primary after the party establishment rallied together against a perceived more radical candidate. They don’t have a strong personality, and run mostly on revulsion towards their opponent. This is John Kerry, John McCain, Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton. This is also Joe Biden.

In contrast to this, presidential winners are typically either incumbents or those who are able to successfully market themselves as outsiders. Obama, Trump and to a lesser extent Bill Clinton were all able to establish themselves as set apart from a Washington milieu that the American public had tired of. Even George W. Bush, the son of a former president, portrayed himself as an outsider. At the same time, there’s a huge incumbency advantage in modern politics, with 4 of the last 5 presidents winning a second term. (The exception to both of the above paragraphs is George H. W. Bush, but in many ways he proves the rule — even the anointed successor to one of the most popular presidents in history was barely able to scrape out a single term.)

By all the rules of modern American politics (to the extent it is possible to draw rules in a messy business with small sample sizes), this election should be a victory lap for Donald Trump, a hold of serve for the incumbent against a forgettable establishment challenger. But it is 2020, and nothing is normal. So Joe Biden is currently flirting with a double-digit lead.

Biden’s success has baffled many members of the commentariat. On social media, left-wing activists rallied behind Bernie Sanders during the primary while more liberal posters supported names like Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris. Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer spent an eye-watering amount of money on campaign advertisements, money that would have been better used by being lit on fire. Biden didn’t have the best ground game, or the deepest war chest. He had an early lead, but one that many assumed was due to name familiarity and would fade as the campaign wore on. It didn’t.

Thus far, the Biden campaign has maintained this strategy of invisibility in the general election. A recent episode of This American Life documents Democrat campaigners in Florida fretting at seeing all the events and door-knocking that local Republicans are doing — largely in defiance of COVID safety, of course — in comparison to a modest, phone-based campaign for Biden. Republicans have mocked “Sleepy Joe” for “hiding in his basement.”

But this relative quiet is, I think, one of the reasons for Biden’s success. For primary voters hammered with ads for a million candidates, the familiar name who hasn’t been in their face was welcoming. In an age where the news has literally taken over what used to be Americans’ daily life, the promise of a return to a boring, mostly ignorable politics, has become appealing.

Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of libidinal enthusiasm. He may not have hewed to decorum, or really any sense of morality, but in 2015 and 2016 Trump was entertaining. He was certainly more interesting than the long-gestating, oatmeal-gray candidacy of Hillary Clinton. But now the show has been on for five years, and the audience is getting sick of it. What’s more, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the value of dull, technocratic leadership over bluster and showmanship.

Even before his 2020 campaign, Biden was associated with comfortable but dull centrism. He was selected as Obama’s running mate in part as a signal that the first black president would not be too radical. The reason why The Onion’s portrayal of him as a rowdy muscle-car guy or Parks & Rec’s role for him as an idol were jokes was because there was an understanding that Biden was, in reality, an unexciting guy, part of the great gray mass of forgettable politicians.

After Trump’s upset in 2016, many pundits are understandably shy about predicting a Biden win. And the heavy use of mail-in ballots may cause chaos and drag the election out into the following days or weeks. Even so, the most likely outcome on election day is a decisive Biden win. Early signs point to a large increase in voter turnout, which would further favour Biden. If so, Biden will make for a president so mundane that he’s unusual — a marker of just how much public opinion turned against Donald Trump, and the politics of spectacle he represents.

The only problem with Biden’s promise is that he is unequipped to actually restore things to normal. While it is likely that a Democratic administration would handle COVID-19 better than Trump (it would be hard to do worse), the virus and its accompanying restriction will continue, and the coming winter will likely be a grim one. The politicization of the virus will make getting a handle on it difficult even when vaccines and rapid testing are widely available. The economic effects are likely to be felt for years to come.

The other markers of politics-all-the-time are also likely to continue into a potential Biden administration. Liberal groups will be emboldened by a Biden victory, and conservatives enraged. Biden has no plan or likely ability to bridge the disconnect between police and the people they are supposed to serve, which was so amply highlighted through the Black Lives Matters protests of the summer. Social media will continue to lead to polarization, competing narratives, and pressure on public figures to make ideological stands. The effects of climate change will continue to heighten even as petro-capitalism clings to power. The hypothetical Biden voter who just wants to not think about politics when he turns on the TV is likely to be disappointed.

On top of this, there’s a substantial chance that Republicans maintain control of the Senate. In that case, we may see unprecedented levels of government inaction as Mitch McConnell-lead Republicans block everything from mundane appointments to any serious COVID relief. Even if the Democrats take all three houses, there is the looming shadow of a Republican-controlled Supreme Court to strike down legislation. I suspect that we will also start hearing about “blue dog” Democrats who want to scale back the scope of any policy proposals. The American system, as it has evolved over the years, is a maze designed to prevent the passage of any substantial expenditure other than military funding and tax cuts and bailouts for the rich, and a moderate without a substantial activist base is in no position to change that even if he wanted to.

The Democrats have framed Biden as a transition from an older generation of leaders into a new group of carefully-groomed stars — most obviously Kamala Harris but also Pete Buttigieg and, for left-of-centre types, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. But ultimately his politics of normalcy are ill-suited for a distinctly abnormal time. If he wins, it is likely to be only a temporary respite, with danger lurking ahead for what remains of centrist politics.