These are scary and unprecedented times. Our subconscious evolutionary biology makes us crave trustworthy and decisive leadership during a crisis.
I know this intuitively having gone through more than my fair share of crises. As a native Manhattanite who mostly grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey, 9/11 changed everything about my life. In its wake, I abandoned my undergrad in biology and chose to move to the Middle East.
During my six years in the region, I studied historical texts, memorized Arabic root words, authored scholarly articles, and forged life-long friendships. Yet, there were also more than a few unexpected struggles. I was tortured by the Syrian secret police and kidnapped by Kurdish separatists. I witnessed death at a car bombing in Jerusalem, stood less than ten meters from an IED in Fallujah, and cowered under the sink when my hotel took mortar fire in Baghdad. Yet to be honest, I’ve never been as worried for the future as I am now.
Over the past few days, a high school classmate in his late-30s has been hospitalized and then intubated for COVID-19, while a 25-year-old former all-American lacrosse player who lives within a mile of my house languishes at death’s door, unable to get the medications he needs. Personally, I’ve experienced increasing bouts of shortness of breath, wheezing and bone-dry coughs. Am I sick or just having a normal — albeit delayed onset — reaction to our way of life, the global economy, and my personal savings collapsing in unison?
I feel every bone of my body yearning for leadership. Yet, it is tragically lacking at the national and international levels.
As the certainties we hold dear appear to be shifting beneath our feet, one man is uniquely positioned to step into the void. Yet, despite his position as the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden appears to be balking at the chance.
Biden should now hew closely to the path of our nation’s most revered wartime leaders, while selectively copying from the playbooks of our closest allies.
Over the past two weeks, Biden seems to have disappeared, while Andrew Cuomo has stepped into the void — presenting an alternative model to Trump’s executive leadership style. Yes, Biden has held a CNN virtual Town Hall meeting about the virus and appeared on Meet the Press. But he has done so within the confines of his role as former VP and aspiring Democratic Presidential Nominee.
Under normal circumstances, that would be fine. But given the unprecedented crisis, Biden should be playing the role of “shadow” President — injecting a voice of reason into the national debate and constantly demonstrating to Americans how an experienced statesman would be handling the current crisis.
Individuals don’t choose the history they get to live. But history does choose those few individuals who get to shape it. The anointed are never perfectly suited for the job, but they must let the moment mold them to its demands. Biden is now history’s instrument. And, despite any reservations we might still hold regarding his candidacy, history can give us some perspective here.
Cincinnatus was a farmer without political experience (he saved Ancient Rome) and Winston Churchill (who saved the British Empire) was a lifelong drunk and gambler. He also came into WWII with a checkered wartime record. As First Lord of the Admiralty twenty-four years earlier, he doubled down on Gallipoli leading to tens of thousands of unnecessary Commonwealth casualties. So, Joe is occasionally tongue-tied and has shifted his views on healthcare, the Hyde Amendment, and criminal justice reform. He has also been known to plagiarize his stump speeches from third-rate British politicians. No matter.
Such are the ways of history. To increase his chance of success, Biden should now hew closely to the path of our nation’s most revered wartime leaders, while selectively copying from the playbooks of our closest allies.
During the 1864 Presidential contest, Abraham Lincoln created the National Unity Party to appeal to Democrats who feared that the Republican party was too statist. By following Lincoln’s example, Biden can unite America during the COVID-19 crisis. He must simultaneously unify the fissures within the Democratic Party and reach out to independents by continuing to stress a return to our nation’s founding principles. Just as he has promised to pick a female vice president, he should now announce the rest of his major cabinet picks in advance, prominently including both Senator Bernie Sanders and anti-Trump Republican figures.
Then he should take a page from British parliamentary practice, holding virtual shadow cabinet meetings to present fully-formulated alternatives to Trump’s policies on how to manage the healthcare system, the economy, and international cooperation to halt the virus’s spread. He should explain to the nation what measures have worked to mitigate the virus’s damage in South Korea, Germany, and Taiwan and how we might copy them.
Imagine how different this moment would feel if we had a President who could genuinely calm the nation by saying, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Joe, if you are listening, please brush up on your corny FDR and Lincoln quotes, and get to work.