Unprepossessing Joe Biden has a great chance to make his mark on history

Janan Ganesh: Little was expected from US president Harry Truman but he proved a surprise

It feels rude to point out how little was expected of Harry Truman when he became US president 75 Aprils ago. He was "just" a Missouri haberdasher. He is still the last non-graduate to attain the office. After Franklin Roosevelt, who matched Albert Einstein as the man of the 20th century, snobs viewed his instalment as an act of bathos.

Truman would end up curating the second half of that century. Nato was his doing, as was Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan and the nuclear age. Perhaps a Napoleonic gift for command always lurked underneath that everyman bonhomie. More likely, though, the world happened to be at its most pliable in 1945. Circumstances counted for more than the individual.

Joe Biden must look at the parable of Truman with indecent relish. A president is never more powerful than after an international crisis. With the world in flux, he need not be an obviously great man to be of great consequence. If the underwhelming Democrat beats President Donald Trump in November, he will have a globe- and era-shaping opportunity.

Lessons of the pandemic

The winner could decide for a generation the lesson of the coronavirus pandemic. Is it the innate danger of the outside world, or the indispensability of co-operation within it?


Next January, if the worst of it has passed, the world could go in one of two directions. The early decisions of the US will determine which

He will have as large a say on whether US-China relations enter a froideur that splits the planet, or just settle into mutual vigilance.

Even through his rhetoric, he will choose which of the two feelings that now pulse inside Americans to encourage: a fear of openness, or a pent-up yearning for the normality of travel and trade.

Just as the presidency was worth more in 1945 than in 1960 – the second being trammelled by decisions made in the first – the policies of 2021 will set the tone for future governments.

Biden is, then, the last, best hope of globalists. At a crucial election, they have a candidate who would take the liberal line on all the hinge questions above. This is not just untrue of Trump. It would have been untrue of Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren. Biden's rivals for the Democratic nod were hardly nationalists, but they were protectionists with none of his immersion in multilateral institutions.

Nor is there a foreign leader who can plausibly carry the torch. The most stalwart internationalist, Angela Merkel, is not long for the German chancellery. The youth and verve of Emmanuel Macron, president of France, belie his protectionism, even if it is European rather than narrowly French in scope. Britain has a jingoist government. And though America's relative clout has waned since 1945, when it produced a third of world output, no other democracy can make or break globalisation anyway.

Biden is the only show in town, but that is one more show than there might have been. Yes, as Sanders loyalists insist, he can be a horse-tranquilisingly dull candidate, at once verbose and content-free. In choosing him, the Democrats fled to safety. But globalists should see him as a reprieve in a century where the torrent of big events – coronavirus, populism, the 2008 financial crash – has been against them.

And nationalists should not assume that such an unprepossessing politician must be useless against them. That error has been made before.

There was nothing inevitable about the US underwriting the free world after 1945: the public clamour was for demobilisation. Nor was it destined that America would lead a liberal system after the Soviet collapse: the semi-isolationist Ross Perot won a vast vote-share in 1992.

Early decisions

What counted in the end were the early decisions. And they were taken by presidents who were Biden-like in their innocuousness. George HW Bush was a company man (that company being the federal government) who passed 64 years of pre-presidential life without saying much of distinction.

One external shock, and he was able to set the world on a course that bound several successors. Presidents with much more innate dynamism have left shallower impressions on history. Circumstances matter.

So it could be with Biden. This pandemic is not the cold war, much less a hot one, but it is the largest disruption for a generation. Next January, if the worst of it has passed, the world could go in one of two directions. The early decisions of the US will determine which.

As such Biden’s plans must widen from the merely curative – fumigate America of Trumpism, make bruised allies good – to the creative work of crafting a post-virus world. Perhaps it is too much to hope that an unremarkable leader can make the planet safe for globalism. But it would not be the first time. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020