The tumult and cruelties of the political campaign that ended with Joe Biden’s victory have left some Americans fearing what the incoming administration might bring. President Donald Trump stoked fear on the right by promising that Biden was a tool of the “radical left,” while some progressives fear a do-nothing Obama Lite period where nothing much gets done.
The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere between our worst fears.
If government were a band, Biden has been the bass player throughout his career: always there in the background, reliable if not flashy. Now it is his turn to take a solo, and he seems ready to step up.
The thing about bass solos, most music lovers know, is that they don’t last long and they set up others for their own solos to follow. If you watch a jazz group, you will see the other players listening intently during that bass solo; they are not just taking in what the bass player is doing, but preparing for their star turn to come. That will be Biden’s role.
Biden himself seems to know this. He has said he will be a “transitional figure” in American leadership, and that may well be a good thing — this year’s general election, which gave us a choice between two 70-somethings, will not likely be repeated and probably shouldn’t be. There are leaders waiting their turn on both sides, including Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, who offer not only different viewpoints but will bring a new generation to the fore.
It is easy to forget that presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Trump were all born in the same year (1946). So was Dolly Parton. She, though, realized long ago that one of her primary roles should be nurturing those who were coming after her, and that is a part of her legacy.
It remains to be seen whether Biden will do the same. His choice for chief of staff, Ron Klain, was widely acclaimed but hardly represents generational change: He first worked for Biden in 1989. Part of Klain’s responsibility will be hiring many of those who will fill key spots in the administration, and hopefully he will look beyond those that he and Biden have known for decades or who served with them in the Obama administration.
Biden doesn’t have to look far to see the benefits of generational diversity and the costs of a lack of imagination. Trump was successful at times in reaching across the generational divide; Haley as U.N. ambassador, for example, was generally well-regarded. His inner circle, however, also included a parade of political has-beens as official and unofficial advisers, including Rudolph Giuliani, John Bolton, Newt Gingrich and William Barr. These have been, um, less successful.
For those fearing that Biden is somehow a puppet controlled by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, those fears will quickly be dispelled. Biden ran in the primaries in direct opposition to Sanders and Warren and their further-left views, and his entire political history — all 47 years of it, as Trump was fond of recounting during the campaign — reveals a steadfast moderate who genuinely longs for bipartisan cooperation. One gets the sense that he wants to tie everything together, so we can all get along.
And what is more bass-player than that?
Perhaps the best-known bass solo in American music comes about two-thirds of the way through Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” The bass line is there the whole time, of course, but then there is a break. Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie sing “you would never break the chain,” and then John McVie’s bass solo begins, long and low, ominous. The drums build behind it over time, and then a furious guitar solo by Lindsay Buckingham overtakes it all.
Even if you don’t think you recognize it, if you listen to the song you will realize that you actually do. Bass lines are like that.
This is Biden’s moment to solo. It may just be a single term. Others wait and listen, knowing their turn will come. Our nation’s hope should be that Biden, too, realizes that his notes will recede into the background as others rise up with something thrilling and new.
Mark Osler is the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas.