Can Joe Biden reunite America? The answer lies in his past

December 15, 2020, 1:00 AM UTC
Joe Biden 1972-Commentary
Joe Biden showed a passion for youth empowerment and bipartisanship in his 1972 Senate run, writes David Topel.
Henry Griffin—AP Images

With bigotry emboldened, ever-escalating partisanship, and a deafening silence from GOP senators as dangerous conspiracy theories spin to their advantage, America is decidedly off-course. Can Joe Biden navigate a post-Trump America back to center? Will his legacy be that of healer-in-chief? 

Fortunately, Joe Biden’s long-held core beliefs will fare well in this time of unprecedented division. Ideally suited to calm a climate of anarchy, Biden’s values include an insistence on civility; an instinct for reaching across the aisle, often creating solutions at times when impasse seems inevitable; and a belief in giving voice to the next generation, evidenced by a lifetime of dedication to youth empowerment. 

How do I know of these long-held core beliefs? I was present when these values guided and defined Biden’s earliest steps in public service and observed their maturation through the decades to follow. 

As a teenage volunteer charged with the logistics of implementing youth education and volunteerism for the 1972 Biden Senate campaign (and the son of state party chairman, Henry Topel, who helped usher a young Joe Biden onto the national stage), I had a front row seat to observe and engage with the behaviors and choices that continue to define the character of our President-elect. 

After the defeat of most of the Democratic candidates in our home state of Delaware in the 1970 election, there was a drastic need for change within Delaware’s Democratic Party. Henry Topel appointed a renewal commission to examine and reevaluate the Democratic Party statewide and suggest changes. The 25-member commission was helped by 100 volunteers who served on one or more of eight task forces to conduct a six-month study of the party. 

Among the 25 appointed members was Joseph R. Biden Jr., a 27-year-old New Castle County councilman. Biden chaired the political education task force, having already been known for voicing his belief that one of the greatest responsibilities of politicians was to educate, motivate, and activate youth. On May 26, 1971, Biden presented his findings, concluding, “We must identify issues of significant interest to young people—poverty, racism, the draft, pollution—and develop legislative programs. We must integrate youth into the party organization at all levels.”

The following month, ratification of the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. Biden immediately put his youth empowerment theories into action, personally seeing that Delaware’s teenage population learned the power of their voice and their vote—an effort that inspired an army of youth to the most unlikely political upset of its day with Biden’s 1972 Senate win. 

As a fundamental component of the 1972 Biden Senate campaign, political education unfolded swiftly in nearly every high school in the state. Biden, in addition to presenting the basics of how to participate in the democratic process, also emphasized a respect for competing perspectives—a glimpse into what would later become his practice of reaching across the aisle in bipartisan compromise. 

I first observed this trait in Biden’s visits to high schools, where he would reflect on questions raised by soon-to-be first-time voters. He explained precisely why others might hold opposing views. “I hear you, and here’s why a 70-year-old retired teacher might feel threatened by that view.” 

He taught empathy. It was palpable. He taught passion. It was contagious. He taught the essential need for respectful compromise—the art of listening to find common ground on which to move forward. It won him an election. 

Through the years, the legislation he cosponsored in the Senate exemplified his gift and inclination for reaching across the aisle. On the Bipartisan Ranking Index, the nonpartisan measure of one’s ability to work across party lines in the House and Senate, Biden’s lifetime average score is in the top 20% of elected officials. This is a stunning achievement given the country’s ever-increasing partisanship. And now, with the power of the presidency, Biden’s bipartisan vision could be fully realized for the first time. 

Admire Biden or not, it is his process, his trust in empowering the next generation, and his belief in reaching across the aisle in the spirit of compromise and respect that can spark the restoration of a system sorely lacking in bipartisanship and end a civil war that has torn our nation apart. 

The 2020 presidential election has determined more than a simple balance of power. It has opened an opportunity to move in the direction of civility, compromise, inclusion, and bipartisanship.

Through a lifetime of service, Joe Biden has shown an instinct for fair-handed compromise; an insistence for civility and respect; and an intangible, wholly American strength forged from being knocked down again and again and always pulling himself up. The result is a level of familiarity, empathy, and authenticity that will serve him well as healer-in-chief. 

David Topel is the author of The Heart of a Leader: The ’72 Biden Senate Campaign: Lessons from a Youth-Driven Upset.

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