Carter Eskew is a founder of the Glover Park Group who oversees the firm's branding, corporate reputation and creative services groups. He wrote this for the Washington Post.
A pattern seems to exist in presidential succession: The next elected president is often the stylistic opposite of the one before.
Moralist Jimmy Carter was elected after Richard M. Nixon; the populist “Man From Hope” Bill Clinton came after the elitist and reserved George H.W. Bush; President Donald Trump's know-nothing, can-do-ism succeeded Barack Obama's cerebral deliberation. If this pattern holds, what qualities might America seek in the president after Trump?
We might have had a glimpse of those qualities last week in a funeral oration comparable to Marc Antony at Julius Caesar's burial. Change the setting and the somber purpose, and former vice president Joe Biden's eulogy of Sen. John McCain was an overture to a potential 2020 presidential campaign.
For those Democrats who like and respect Biden but have a hard time seeing him as a viable nominee due to age, volubility or baggage, it's worth dissecting his remarks to reveal just how stark a contrast Biden might make with Trump and see how his strengths match so well against Trump's weaknesses.
First, Joe Biden is the ultimate “comforter in chief,” a role Americans used to expect from their presidents and one that Trump is preternaturally unable and nearly always unwilling to play.
This is not a trivial skill: A president who cannot understand or comfort in times of national tragedy fails in his basic duty to unify and heal the country. Trump cannot perform this service because he lacks empathy, perhaps to a pathological degree; Biden exudes it. When he speaks about grief, you know Biden has been there: “There are times when life can be so cruel, pain so blinding, it's hard to see anything else.”
And his personal tragedies, the loss of a wife, an infant daughter and a grown son, give his words of reassurance deep resonance. Addressing the McCain family seated in front of him, Biden spoke about coming out of grief's tunnel: “Six months will go by and everybody is going to think, well, it's passed. But you are going to ride by that field or smell that fragrance or see that flashing image. You are going to feel like you did the day you got the news. But you know you are going to make it. The image of your dad, your husband, your friend. It crosses your mind and a smile comes to your lips before a tear to your eye. ... That day will come.”
But the main alternative Biden offered Thursday to Trump was more than his ability to empathize, unify and heal. Instead, it was in his fundamentally different view of America's character and purpose.
The quarrel between Trump and Biden would be about what makes America great and how we can restore it to greatness after Trump has vandalized its ideals and institutions. Biden came to help bury McCain, but in his praise, we saw clearly the outlines of his argument against the current president.
Biden lauded McCain's “basic values, fairness, honesty, dignity, respect, giving hate no safe harbor, leaving no one behind.” He noted, in a clear but unspoken contrast with Trump, “With John, it was a value set that was neither selfish nor self-serving. John understood that America was first and foremost an idea. Audacious and risky, organized around not tribe but ideals.”
Biden offered a thoughtful twist on McCain's heroism to drive his point home. He pointed out that McCain's courage was obvious, but that his bond with the American people was based on something deeper: “Bottom line was, I think John believed in us. I think he believed in the American people. Not just all the preambles, he believed in the American people, all 325 million of us.”
Finally, in what could be viewed as political foreshadowing, Biden said, “John McCain's America is not over. ... It's not over. It's not close.”
We'll know soon enough whether Biden will run in 2020, but it's worth noting that Marc Antony's funeral oration closed with, “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt.”