The idea of Joe Biden for president requires squaring his past with the future.
The Senate votes that aged poorly, the eulogies that would be unthinkable if he delivered them in 2020, the fact he’ll be 78 years old on inauguration day — all of these tie into tensions that hampered him at points during the Democratic primaries. And now that Biden is the presumptive nominee, they are a reminder that the problems of the present could well outlive him.
So it mattered in early March when Biden shared a stage with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and told a Detroit crowd that the trio of Generation X-ers represented the future. “I view myself as a bridge,” Biden said, “not as anything else.”
It was a moment of self-awareness for a candidate who said he was “still holding on to that torch” when a millennial rival prevailed on him to pass it during a debate the previous summer. After a half-century in public life, Biden was now claiming a responsibility to elevate new voices and to empower new leaders. In doing so, he created more questions than he answered.
Biden sees himself as a transitional figure. But as a transition to what? Which leaders, with what ideas? Does his view of a bridge mean those who practice similarly moderate politics but of a different generation, or would his presidency be a transformational gateway into the ideas of the young left?
When Biden talks about the next generation, does he mean Cabinet roles for younger leaders, or trying to appeal to younger voters? Does he mean a vice president? He has promised to pick a woman, and Harris, 55, and Whitmer, 48, are among those being considered. He also has signaled that he’s approaching the choice like Barack Obama did before selecting Biden to be his running mate in 2008. But given Biden’s age even then, no one saw him on the other side of the generational bridge that Obama, a young Baby Boomer, seemed to represent at the time.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent nationwide protests that serve as a demand to address systemic racism give these questions about the direction of Biden’s potential presidency — its aims and possibilities — even more urgency and weight. Interviews with more than a dozen Democratic officeholders and activists, most of them under 40 and many of them leaders of color, yielded a range of expectations and hopes but no overarching consensus. (Most spoke with BuzzFeed News in the days before the death late last month of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose neck was crushed under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.)
To some, Biden’s eight years under Obama, and the fact that he’s not President Donald Trump, who has exacerbated racial tensions, are a sturdy foundation — the promise of a return to moral and dignified leadership, if not the “Big Structural Change” Sen. Elizabeth Warren offered during the primaries. “He’s a good man,” Randall Woodfin, the 39-year-old mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, who endorsed Biden before the first caucuses and primaries, told BuzzFeed News. “I think he can rightset some of the things that have happened.”
To others, being Not Trump is not enough. “If that’s really what he is, a bridge, then he really needs to be setting the groundwork, so whoever comes next can get these policies over the finish line,” said Sarah Audelo, 36, who served as Hillary Clinton’s millennial vote director in 2016 and is now the executive director of the progressive voter mobilization group Alliance for Youth Action. “Not being Trump should be a low threshold for us.”
As the pandemic has continued and especially since Floyd’s death, Biden has shown an interest in being more. In a nationally televised speech last week, he spoke of leading the next generation to reverse systemic racism. He has begun pondering aloud the need for a more aggressive agenda. And he’s been using words like “revolutionary,” an unsubtle flare that invoked the message of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a dispatched rival with a devoted following among young liberal voters.
“I don’t think Biden’s age has to necessarily be the limitation on him being a transformational leader, but it’s going to be up to the decisions he makes and those directing him make,” said Chokwe Lumumba, the 37-year-old mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, who endorsed Sanders before his state’s primary. “We can’t play it safe and assume the energy around Donald Trump will go away.”
During a New York fundraiser one year ago this month, Biden boasted of his working relationships with two segregationist senators. Ten days later, at the first Democratic debate in Miami, Kamala Harris turned Biden’s fond memory into a two-fisted attack that included Biden’s opposition to federally mandated busing as a means to integrate schools in the 1970s.
“I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris, who is Black and was 8-years-old when Biden was first elected to the Senate, told her then-rival. “But I also believe — and it’s personal — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Biden fumbled his way through a response before cutting himself off mid-thought: “Anyway, my time is up.” The exchange was a flashpoint of the summer and for a while seemed like a deep, perhaps insurmountable, difference between Biden and Harris. The Democrats have since become allies — she is considered a strong contender for the vice presidential nomination — but the generational tension point and Biden’s record endures.
The crises of Biden’s own generation revolved around the civil unrest, racism, and political assassinations of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. The crises of the last 20 years have landed harshly and urgently on today’s youth: 9/11, two wars, the 2008 financial collapse, rampant gun violence and school shootings, the unanswered threat of climate change, the deteriorating relationship between police and communities of color, and now a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans in a matter of months. And the young leaders now are even antsier than Biden was then.
Elizabeth Brown, 36, is a member of the city council in Columbus, Ohio, a rising Democratic star in the state, and a second-generation public official. (Her father, Sen. Sherrod Brown, briefly entertained a run for president last year.)
“I think the real key to it,” she said, “is to radically upend your notions of a typical life experience — not just because he’s the former vice president, but because of what a young person is facing today.”
Biden’s campaign is trying to activate younger voters through the recently launched League 46, an organization of students, young professionals, and young officeholders supporting him. The initiative has prompted some snickers, from its baseball metaphors and imagery — baseball is not a sport that’s particularly popular among millennials or Gen Z-ers — to the cohorts involved.
“Every time I think about League 46, I just roll my eyes,” said Audelo, the youth voting activist. “It’s so frustrating. It makes me worry they are only surrounding themselves with people from those groups.”
Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is among those who have participated in League 46 events. In his own presidential bid, Buttigieg proved himself to be one of the party’s most talented fundraisers and a thoughtful observer of political history. He saw his candidacy in the mold of Jimmy Carter and Obama — newcomers who captured a particular moment. And when Buttigieg endorsed Biden in March, barely 24 hours after deciding to end his campaign, he quickly earned the highest praise Biden could offer.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but he reminds me of my son, Beau,” Biden, with Buttigieg at his side, told a crowd gathered that night at a fried chicken restaurant in Dallas.
“If Pete had been around another six years, I wouldn’t be standing here,” Biden added. “I’d be endorsing Pete.”
Biden’s comparison of Buttigieg to his elder son — a former Delaware attorney general and heir to the Biden torch before he died of brain cancer in 2015 — was “extremely touching, of course … knowing how Beau’s memory is present in everything that he does and in his campaign,” Buttigieg said in an interview.
The moment also reflected how Biden’s vision of the future is often rooted around people more than policies, a vision more transitional than transformational. As a candidate, Buttigieg promised generational change while often reflecting on past political eras and wrestling with his own place on the ideological spectrum. His moderate positions on several policy issues aligned him more closely with Biden than with Sanders or Warren. (Despite his youth, Buttigieg also polled better among older voters.)
He believes Biden, given the crises of today, could have a mandate for more progressive action.
“Moments of extreme pain or extreme inequality have often led to a progressive period, certainly the late 19th century, which is the last time we saw this level of inequality, and in some ways the ‘60s, which is the last time we saw this level of upheaval,” Buttigieg said.
“One friend described what we’re going through as a country as the universe sort of punishing us for ever telling our parents we envied them living in the ‘60s and all the excitement from that period,” he added. “The truth is those moments of upheaval, you know we look back on them romantically, but they were pretty awful in many ways. I think that’s what we’re seeing now.”
Millennial and Gen Z voters, born between 1981 and 1999, were more partial to Sanders, 78, and Warren, 70, not because they were from a younger generation, but in part because they responded to a younger generation’s calls for free college and health care and an aggressive approach to climate change.
“‘Big Structural Change’ is probably pretty nerdy,” said Brown, the Columbus city councilor, echoing Warren’s campaign slogan when asked what she hopes to see from Biden. “But I have to tell you, that makes my heart sing.”
Biden hasn’t gone quite so far, at least not yet. Since March, though, he has tiptoed to the left on college affordability, an issue that resonated with Sanders and Warren backers. First, he reversed his long opposition to a Warren plan that would forgive student loan debt for people in bankruptcy. And after becoming the presumptive nominee in April, he proposed relieving undergraduate student loan debt for those making less than $125,000 a year if they attended a public college or university, or a school that primarily serves people of color. He also has endorsed tuition-free college for families with annual incomes up to $125,000.
“To me, if you really want to build that bridge, you do it around three or four issues that animate the people who expect to be living through them over the next 50 to 60 years,” said PG Sittenfeld, 35, a city councilor in Cincinnati who initially supported Warren and listed climate change, college affordability, criminal justice reform, and gun violence as the most pressing issues facing his generation.
After Sanders dropped out and quickly endorsed Biden, the former rivals created “unity task forces” in several policy areas. One cross-generational alliance features Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old Sanders acolyte pushing for a Green New Deal, and John Kerry, the 76-year-old former secretary of state, as co-chairs of the climate committee. It’s a mashup of young and old, outsider and insider — and a sign that Biden is willing to outsource policymaking in a way that draws from different experiences and pleases rival party factions. What this leads to or results in is another question entirely. If there’s an ideological impasse, or a disagreement that breaks down along generational lines, does Biden try to split the difference and call it a compromise? Will these task forces lead to anything at all?
Several young Democrats said they have been encouraged by Biden’s outreach. Malcolm Kenyatta, a 29-year-old state representative in Pennsylvania and early Biden supporter and surrogate, cited an authenticity factor — and Biden’s well-documented ability to emote.
“I say all the time that Joe Biden’s superpower is to empathize,” Kenyatta said. “What all communities are looking for, in particular younger communities, is for someone who actually gives a fuck about them.”
Jason Kander, 39, the former Missouri secretary of state who lost a US Senate bid in 2016, said he found Biden humble in his efforts to court younger voters.
“What I think is laudable, and what I think is going to connect with millennials, is he hasn’t been afraid to say when he doesn’t know something, and that’s a big contrast with Trump,” said Jason Kander, 39, the former Missouri secretary of state who lost a US Senate bid in 2016. “Vice President Biden is a white man in his 70s and he doesn’t pretend, therefore, that he understands the experiences of black people or millennials or women.”
Buttigieg understands the tension among progressive factions in the party.
“We have been pinned between two kinds of incomplete models for where we want America to go,” he said. “One is looking across the Atlantic to European social democracy and wanting the outcomes that many Europeans enjoy to exist for Americans, too, but I think we see why it won’t be the same here. And then the other model is to look at the past, look to the New Deal, look to the Great Society, and see how much of that can be recovered. But neither of those is totally going to meet the moment here. We need something that’s uniquely American, and we need something that’s uniquely 2020.”
Of Biden’s vice presidential prospects, only Rep. Val Demings of Florida agreed to be interviewed for this story and discuss what a bridge to the future means to her. Demings, 63, borrowed a line from Rep. James Clyburn, 79, a Biden ally in South Carolina and influential voice in the VP search.
“It’s about making this country’s greatness accessible to everyone,” she said. “It’s about not leaving 99% of the people out, certainly not leaving our youth out. I think there’s only one person who wants to be president who believes that.”
“We need to include young people in big decisions,” Demings added. “We need to hang out with them, learn from them, listen to them.”
Hanging out isn’t always good enough, though.
“What you will find from a younger generation of leadership is they don't want to only be in the car, they want to take a leg of the drive,” said Lumumba, the Jackson mayor. “They want to hold the wheel.”
And yet, Biden might not need young voters to beat Trump. He’s not doing much worse than Clinton did with them in 2016, though Clinton of course lost the Electoral College. But he doesn’t want to alienate millennials or Gen Z-ers who believe in the policies advanced by Sanders and Warren. “We’ve got to make sure that this crisis doesn't rob them of the opportunities that they've been working so damn hard for,” he said during a virtual fundraiser in late April.
This month, during a League 46 virtual town hall with young voters hosted by the actor Don Cheadle, who is 55, Biden tied the recent crises together and talked of turning anguish into purpose. A moment later, he reached for an old-fashioned idiom.
“Your generation,” Biden said, “has gotten a real kick in the teeth.” ●