November 25, 2020

Biden’s Big Opportunity

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ImageJoe Biden in front of his childhood home in Scranton, Pa., last week.
Credit…Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Joe Biden doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate to be a transformational president.

He is not a great public speaker, and he doesn’t have a strong ideology. Over his long career, Biden has mostly tried to stay near the center of the Democratic Party, even when that center has moved.

But history suggests that transformational presidents usually don’t look the part before taking office.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s critics called him an aristocrat without a coherent theory of how to end the Depression. Ronald Reagan was dismissed as an intellectual lightweight from Hollywood. And yet Roosevelt and Reagan each ushered in an era of dominance for their preferred policies.

They did so because of their political skills — and because each was taking office during a national crisis, when a transformation of the government suddenly seemed reasonable to many Americans. If Biden wins, he may be taking office at a similar moment, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, a deep recession and a reckoning with racism.

Which means he may have an opportunity to preside over greater change — on climate policy, racial issues, health care, taxes, education and more — than any recent president. Biden’s advisers say that, over the course of the campaign, he has become increasingly attracted to that notion.

In a 45-minute phone call that Biden held yesterday with several journalists, I asked him whether he would be comfortable pushing a more ambitious agenda than his former boss, Barack Obama, did. His answer: Yes.

“I do think we’ve reached a point, a real inflection in American history. And I don’t believe it’s unlike what Roosevelt was met with,” Biden said. “I think we have an opportunity to make some really systemic change.”

He added: “Something’s happening here, it really is. The American people are going, ‘Whoa, come on, we’ve got to do something.’” As evidence, he cited the number of white Americans participating in Black Lives Matter protests.

Biden has called for police reforms, sharp cuts in carbon emissions, a major infrastructure program, universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, a big expansion of Medicare and substantially higher taxes on the rich. Bernie Sanders says the agenda would make Biden “the most progressive president since F.D.R.”

And most polls show that a majority of Americans support each of those policies.

None of this means Biden will necessarily succeed. He still needs to win, help Democrats retake the Senate, avoid intraparty fights between the left and center — and then deliver policies that actually affect Americans’ lives.

But the potential for sweeping change is real, even if Biden isn’t most liberals’ idea of a visionary.

And the filibuster? Asked whether he supports getting rid of the filibuster, so the Senate could pass bills with a straight majority, Biden said: “It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” referring to Republicans.

He noted that he has historically supported the filibuster and was optimistic he could find common ground with Republicans. “But I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it,” he added.

With coronavirus cases on the rise, officials in Los Angeles and San Diego announced that schools would remain fully remote in the fall. The two districts are the largest so far in the U.S. to rule out even a partial return to the classroom.

California also reversed some previous moves toward reopening, shutting the indoor operations of restaurants, wineries, movie theaters and more.

Dueling Disney responses: Hong Kong Disneyland is closing again, as part of the government’s response to 52 new cases in the city. In Orlando, where there are many more recent cases, Walt Disney World remains open.


The economic downturn caused by the pandemic has led to the largest decline in health coverage on record: An estimated 5.4 million American workers lost their health insurance between February and May, according to a new study.

The Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes: “The White House and Congress have done little to help. The Trump administration has imposed sharp cuts on the funding for outreach programs that assist people in signing up for coverage.”


Poland narrowly re-elected its far-right president, Andrzej Duda, whose allies have fought to control the courts and media while stoking fear of gay people, the European Union and foreigners.

It was the country’s closest presidential election in the three decades since the end of communist rule. The opposition, powered by young voters, had viewed the race as a chance to arrest Poland’s drift toward illiberalism.


Credit…September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times

Alabama Republicans will pick between two high-profile candidates in a Senate primary runoff today: Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville. Sessions, who fell from grace as President Trump’s attorney general after recusing himself in the Russia investigation, hopes to reclaim a seat he held for 20 years. Tuberville coached Auburn University’s football team for 10 seasons, and Trump has endorsed him.

Either man will be favored to beat the Democratic incumbent, Senator Doug Jones. But Tuberville’s political inexperience — and lack of previous public scrutiny — means that Jones’s campaign would prefer to face him than Sessions, The Times’s Elaina Plott told us.

Here’s a rundown of other races to watch today.


  • Authorities have found the body of the “Glee” actress Naya Rivera, who went missing last week while boating with her 4-year-old son in California.

  • For Native American activists, the decision by Washington’s N.F.L. team to change its name was “a long time coming.” Many now hope the team does not choose a new name tied to Native American stereotypes, like Warriors or Braves.

  • The Fox News star Tucker Carlson said that he would take a “long planned” vacation, days after a writer on his program resigned over racist and misogynist online messages. Carlson called the messages “wrong” but said the writers’ critics were “ghouls.”

  • Violin vigils are popping up across the country to honor Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old who played the violin and died in police custody in Colorado last summer.

  • Lives Lived: As a recent college graduate, Zindzi Mandela carried a message from her father, Nelson Mandela, to P.W. Botha, South Africa’s president under apartheid. No, the elder Mandela wrote, he would not accept release from prison if it meant being exiled. She later became a passionate activist in her own right, a poet and a diplomat. She died at 59.

“What is this cancel culture thing, anyway?” Ross Douthat asks in his latest Times column. He proceeds to offer 10 answers, including:

  • Cancellation, properly understood, refers to the loss of employment and reputation on the basis of opinions or actions that are publicized and criticized by a large and diffuse or small and determined group of critics.

  • All cultures cancel; the question is for what, how widely and through what means.

  • The right and the left both cancel; it’s just that today’s right is too weak to do it effectively.

For a different view: Charles Blow, another Times Opinion columnist, has argued that there is no such thing as cancel culture. As he tweeted: “There is free speech. You can say and do as you pls, and others can choose never to deal this you, your company or your products EVER again. The rich and powerful are just upset that the masses can now organize their dissent.”

Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

Mealtime will look very different for many students returning to college campuses in the fall. Gone are the self-serve salad stations and communal condiments in dining halls; in their place are plexiglass barriers, where masked and gloved workers will serve nearly everything to students.

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Credit…Russell Shakespeare for The New York Times

“Humans don’t have a monopoly on sexually transmitted infections,” Rachel E. Gross writes. “Oysters get herpes, rabbits get syphilis, dolphins get genital warts.” And animals including fish and parakeets can be infected by chlamydia.