Editor’s Note: David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and was the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
Apparently on the cusp of entering the already-crowded 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden must do much more than assemble a campaign team, match Bernie Sanders in micro-fundraising, and set off on the campaign trail. He must also offer a compelling rationale for why he wants to be president.
Old-timers will remember how Sen. Edward Kennedy was sailing ahead in the 1980 Democratic field until journalist Roger Mudd asked him why he was hungering for the Oval Office. To everyone’s surprise, Kennedy stumbled into incoherence. His campaign quickly sank from there.
So far, Biden hasn’t signaled what his clarion call will be. That is understandable for the moment, as he has only hinted at a run. But his world will change the moment he declares. Will his rallying cry then be the obvious, “Dump Trump”? Or will he embrace the ambitious agenda of the far left – a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, etc?
Perhaps if President Trump is sufficiently unpopular, either approach will work. But from my small corner of the country, I sense that the public’s number one priority is different. People want to go beyond getting rid of Trump but are not yet ready for epic new battles over a hard-left agenda. Rather, they are most eager to get the country back on track, restore civility and sanity to our lives and bring a healing to our people.
As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted in a recent visit to the Harvard Kennedy School, Teddy Roosevelt warned in an 1900 essay against the danger of losing our “fellow-feeling” for other Americans. Roosevelt argued that “a very large part of the rancor of political and social strife… arises either from sheer misunderstanding of one section, or one class, of another,” or from people being so cut off from each other that “neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices and indeed, point of view.” When we see our rivals as “other,” Goodwin argued, we can lose the bedrock of democracy.
Americans feel in their bones that we are dangerously divided – more so than at any time since the Civil War – and they would welcome efforts to pull us back from the brink.
If Biden seizes the moment, convincing the public that he is the best candidate to heal the country, he can turn some of his perceived weaknesses into strengths. Progressives complain that he is too much of a centrist, but if we are to close our divides, don’t we need a president who works from the center, not the fringes?
Progressives complain that he pays too much respect to Trump loyalists – like “decent guy” Mike Pence – but if we are to get significant legislation passed in the next term, don’t we need respect across the aisle? Critics also argue that he is too old and out of touch with the younger generation, but don’t we need a president who remembers how an older generation made politics work?
So, how might he best proceed? Three suggestions:
First, if and when he declares, Biden might break precedent by promising up front that he will serve for only a single term – “one and done,” as they say in college basketball. Unlike other politicians who always seem grasping for power, Biden would have a credible argument that he is truly putting country first.
But, the critics will respond, he will automatically become a lame duck, unable to get big things done. So? It is already clear that unless we break out of today’s paralyzed politics, the next president will be badly handcuffed.
And committing to one term would also diminish the importance of his age issue. With a single term, he would step down at 81. People might accept that. But trying to go on till 85? That seems beyond the pale.
Second, he should look among the rising progressives for a vice president, grooming that person for a presidential race in 2024. Kamala Harris is an obvious possibility, but as the primaries get underway, others are likely to make his short list, too.
Third, he should begin keeping a list of Republicans as well as Democrats who might join his administration — his own “team of rivals” representing a variety of views and backgrounds. There is plenty of precedent for presidents reaching across the aisle to bolster their governing capacities.
From the get-go, John Kennedy had Republicans in heavyweight jobs in his government – as secretary of treasury, secretary of defense, CIA director and national security adviser. As a result of those appointments, his government was unquestionably stronger when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted (indeed, two of those Kennedy Republicans – Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon – were pivotal in the handling of the crisis).
Many progressive Democrats, newly emboldened and hungry for big changes, are sure to see such a reform agenda from Biden as timid, even a sellout. Some seem to think that after regaining the White House, they can roll over their opposition. They may be right, but it seems unlikely. For starters, chances are high that the GOP will keep the Senate; unless the Democrats can create a new spirit of bipartisanship with Republicans, their agenda could easily stall out.
In her visit, Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out that as Lincoln stared into the future, he saw that Reconstruction was actually going to be harder to pull off than winning the war itself. And so it may be now: Reuniting the country could be harder than coping with Trump.
Perhaps Biden won’t succeed with a message of restoring harmony, but just by running on it, he will force the country to begin a serious conversation about what comes after Trump. Doing so would be an act of service the country badly needs.