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Joe Biden’s Old-Fashioned Liberalism

It’s prosaic and present-oriented—as shown in his speech before Congress tonight.
April 28, 2021
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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the dais behind him on April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. On the eve of his 100th day in office, Biden spoke about his plan to revive America’s economy and health as it continues to recover from a devastating pandemic. He delivered his speech before 200 invited lawmakers and other government officials instead of the normal 1600 guests because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress tonight was that of an old-fashioned, pretty uncomplicated, and straightforward liberal.

Joe Biden is a Democrat. So it made sense that he would cite a Democratic predecessor in his speech, rather than a Republican. But the predecessor Biden cited wasn’t the man he served as vice president, Barack Obama. Nor did Biden mention any other recent Democratic president. The one president Biden did mention was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the mention wasn’t particularly controversial: “In another era when our democracy was tested, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us—In America: We do our part.” That sentiment, in fact, is kind of old-fashioned.

The speech was old-fashioned but it was also present-oriented. Or maybe that’s what one should expect from a kind of old-fashioned liberal. After all, liberals tend to be more interested in the near past, the present, and the near future, than in history. Fancier liberals—call them progressives—are very interested in History with a capital-H, and are often quite taken with their own part in advancing it, in Historically significant ways. Barack Obama enjoyed fancying himself in such a role. Biden is a more prosaic, less grandiose, more old-fashioned kind of liberal.

That orientation brings with it some limitations, to be sure—including a kind of present-orientedness that can be blind to some of the more complex lessons of history. And it’s also the case that this kind of prosaic liberalism can at times be intimidated by, and yield too easily to, woke progressives, who make liberals feel guilty about not being liberal enough. But the prosaic liberal’s desire for national unity, his respect for most of his fellow citizens, his wariness of flights of fancy, his suspicions of leftist utopianism—and, to be fair, his commitment to liberty and decency—can provide at least some resistance to woke hectoring. And so Biden’s speech featured little in the way of wokeness.

Ever since Joe Biden was a very young man, intellectuals of all kinds have been writing weighty tomes—often intelligent and thoughtful ones—about the end of liberalism. If Biden’s rather straightforward and uncomplicated liberalism produces a reasonably successful presidency, the reports of liberalism’s death may prove to have been somewhat exaggerated.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.