This is going to be about Joe Biden, but let’s put politics aside for the moment.
This is about a man who was elected by a majority of American voters (fact-check here) to lead our country through epic crises. America hasn’t been challenged on this scale since WWII. We’ve faced existential crises before — Vietnam, multiple recessions, political crises, financial implosions, 9/11, race riots — but they’ve been sequential. Each one has occurred in discrete periods of time.
Today, we’re multitasking our crises.
“President Biden is facing not only an economic crisis but also a political crisis, a cultural crisis, a public-health crisis and an epistemological one,” said historian Jon Meacham. “It’s immense. And they’re all related.” (Epistemology, by the way, is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion; I had to look it up too.)
As the leader of the executive branch and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, our presidents carry on their shoulders enormous responsibilities. More than that, they become avatars for a million hopes and dreams; in addition to their constitutional functions, presidents are expected to fill the role of parent, coach, rabbi, soothsayer and fixer. In the best of times, it’s a challenging job. Today, the challenge borders on the unimaginable.
I’m sure that old cliché about being careful what you wish for because you just might get it has been knocking around in Biden’s head. The expectations for his presidency are immense: fix the plague, right the economy, reassert our leadership in the world order, deliver racial and economic justice, secure our country against emerging threats like cyber warfare, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, save the climate, and, oh, while you’re doing all that could you please unite our country?
So this man, a 78-year-old career politician, is the one that history has chosen to put in this position of leadership in 2021. It will take years to unpack all the dynamics that have led to this point. But here we are. And just as history demands leadership from Biden, it also demands leadership from us.
Let’s step up.
Let’s set aside our grievances, our political bias, all that social media chatter, our political affiliation and, most important, all that whataboutism. Let’s let go of all that. We’ve got problems to solve, so let’s become problem-solvers. That’s what Americans do. The history of our country is one of pragmatic, incremental progress — problem-solving.
First, let’s all appreciate the enormity of what the new president faces. Empathy is one of the most powerful — and empowering — abilities we have. Empathy clears the heart and nurtures connection. It assumes good intentions until proven otherwise. It understands and accepts human frailty. We need more of that.
Second, politics aside, let’s respect Biden as a person — a man who conquered a debilitating stutter as a child, endured the loss of his wife and daughter in 1972, and mourned the loss of a son in 2015. This is a man who has known tragedy and not just survived, but prevailed, which is a fundamental measure of character.
Third, let’s be gracious. Sports is a good metaphor here. Play hard and then accept the outcome with a handshake, realizing that a single game (or election) is part of a continuum of seasons, cycles and eras. “You will always harvest what you plant,” said a wise soul in Galatians. The Buddhists call it karma; I call it common sense.
Empathy, respect, grace. None of those qualities were on display at the Capitol on Jan. 6. We are all smarter than that, better than that. When we are a country facing 100-year challenges and generational challenges simultaneously, we need to reach down and step up, not melt down and act out.
An image keeps recurring: When several of us were elected as elders at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley during the mid-90s, we were ordained at the altar, as is the custom. Near the end of the ceremony, deacons and other members of the congregation were invited to approach and lay their hands on our backs, or their hands on the backs of those in front of them, until we were all connected. It was a moving representation of hope, confidence and support that will stay forever in my heart.
I’d like to see that played out in Congress — hands laid on shoulders in empathy, respect and grace — but of course that would be naïve. At the very least, though, we can all take a moment to do that in our own minds. Knowing that eventually we will face each other on opposite sides of the political battlefield (gracefully, one hopes), take a moment, imagine putting a hand on Biden’s shoulder and quietly say, with a little squeeze, “You got this Joe.”
And in speaking to Joe, we’ll be speaking to ourselves.