In his 1943 work, A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow suggested his hierarchy of human needs. At the end of the pyramid were the basics: food, water, warmth, rest. As you went up the pyramid, the needs became more specific and abstract: belonging, prestige, self-actualization.
In the past four years we have slipped far down the hierarchy of political needs. The question is not whether the president is a political genius, a generational speaker, a historical legislative tactician, or a masterful manager. It's whether he's a white supremacist. Whether he's a conspiracy theorist. Is he a liar? Whether he's blackmailing foreign governments to investigate local rivals. Whether he's a Covid-19 super spreader.
In 2016, I reported for a few weeks about why the Obama employees at the time showed so little enthusiasm for a Joe Biden presidential campaign. Everyone I spoke to liked Biden, usually very much. They praised his friendliness, his decency, his loyalty. It was not these higher order questions that troubled her. He was conducting messy, inefficient meetings. He wasn't a politician like Hillary Clinton. He didn't have Barack Obama's technocratic coolness or rhetorical ease. He felt like Obama's partner, not his successor.
In 2020, Biden is likely to be Donald Trump's successor, and his appearance at the ABC Town Hall showed why. I have watched countless political town halls for my sins. By the traditional standards of these things, Biden's performance was not particularly masterful. He was clear and specific and on the right side on most issues. But in terms of content, it wasn't brilliant rhetoric or breathtaking political vision. It was good work.
But 2020 is not 2016. More fundamental questions are asked. And that's where Biden excelled. Throughout the night, Biden's meta-message was that decency will be on the ballot for 2020. After responding to an audience, he would often say seriously, "I hope that answered your question." After a lengthy response to a young constituent who he saw wasn't convincing, Biden said, "There's a lot more; if you can hang around after that, I'll tell you more. I'm serious." He really seemed to be doing it. (If you watched the livestream, you could see that half an hour after the event ended and the microphones turned off, Biden was still there asking questions from the audience.)
At about the moment Trump was flirting with QAnon support in his NBC City Hall, Biden said, "A president's words matter. No matter if they are good, bad, or indifferent, they are important. And if a president doesn't wear a mask or makes fun of people like me when I've been wearing a mask for a long time, then people say, well, it doesn't have to be that important. But when a president says I think this is very important – for example I came here with this mask, but I have one of the N95 masks underneath, I left it in my dressing room – I think it is important. "
The moment Trump refused to turn down QAnon, Biden said on ABC, "If a president doesn't wear a mask or makes fun of people like me when I've been wearing a mask for a long time, people say." it doesn't have to be that important. "A staggering contrast. Pic.twitter.com/rqppKQDUrs
– Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 16, 2020
This has always been Biden's point: the President's words are important. The behavior of the president is important. The behavior of the president is important. The example of the president is important. Biden talks about politics often and reasonably well, but he hasn't set up a clinic in Wonkery. He set up a decent clinic. And it's important. It shouldn't – propriety should be table stakes, too unremarkable to mention – but it is right now.
Towards the end of the evening, a mother with a transgender daughter asked Biden how he would protect the lives and rights of LGBTQ Americans. Biden responded with his guidelines, but he also related the story of being a kid and seeing two men kissing when his father let him out of the car. "My dad looked at me and said," Joey, it's easy. They love each other. “The idea, Biden continued,“ that an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old, decides, “I want to be transgender. That's what I would like to be. It would make my life a lot easier. "And then he grimaced in disbelief." There shouldn't be any discrimination, "he concluded.
In my opinion, the answer that most clearly expressed Biden's policies and most directly addressed this moment came when he was asked, "As President, how can you avoid the temptation to seek vengeance and take the road instead?" Biden replied, "In politics, grudges don't work. They don't make sense. I'm serious." And he does. How would it feel to have a president who believes that after four years of presidency built on resentment and fueled by resentment?
Biden was not my preferred candidate in 2020. I am moved by the wins, the visionaries, the candidates with grand plans and comprehensive theories of political change. Biden's metapolitics is often a rejection of it; An appeal to a quiet, middle-class approach to government that I fear will collapse on the raptures of republican obstructionism. However, however Biden ultimately rules, the secret of his campaign is that his political style is currently a relief for many Americans. It corresponds to their basic need for politics that do not fill them with fear and shame.
Biden was right about our politics right now. He was right about what the Americans wanted to hear. The message from Biden's City Hall was simple: politics can feel like this – gentle, decent, concerned, I hope I've answered your question – or it could continue to feel like the circus you found when you moved to Trump's City Hall are NBC.
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