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Review: American Dreamer by Evan Osnos

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Despite 47 years in public life, little of substance is known about the President-elect outside of the United States. This well-researched but flawed book could go a long way towards addressing that.

At the time of writing, more than 77 million Americans have voted for Joe Biden, demolishing the record of votes for a presidential candidate set by his running-mate Barack Obama back in 2008. Yet there is a palpable sense that a huge chunk of voters have thrown their weight behind him for no other reason than that he is not Donald Trump. The Trump Presidency will (hopefully) soon be just a dark episode in America’s tumultuous recent political history. The blizzard of books detailing his crimes and incompetence over the last 4 years could probably be filed into its own subcategory, a mini-library of reference we can reflect on in years to come and think “remember when the world went completely mad for 4 years?.”

Biden’s long and storied career has not been chronicled nearly as much as the last 4 years of mania. In Race of a Lifetime the definitive account of the 2008 presidential election, Biden barely comes in for a mention. His pseudo-autobiography/manifesto, Promises to Keep, was published in 2008 partly to take him out of Obama’s shadow. It is exceptionally light on substance. This latest biography by New Yorker staffer Evan Osnos is light enough in terms of content (a mere 170 pages) but not on substance. Osnos offers good analysis of Biden’s early years in congress, his ability to work with Republicans to achieve his goals and his affable, glad-handing political style.

American Dreamer is by no means a white-wash. Biden’s mistreatment of his staffers is highlighted, as is the chip on his shoulder that he has apparently carried since his early career at being relatively lightly educated. There is mention too of the innumerable gaffes and his cringeworthy offhand comments to reporters over the years. In his 1988 run for the Presidency, Biden copied a famous campaign speech by UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock word-for word, and somehow thought no one would notice.

Osnas presents his best stuff while chronicling Biden’s term as Vice President, and when detailing the difficulties Biden will face with confronting elements of his own party, particularly what is seen as the “far-left” dimension represented by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Osnas offers a sympathetic glimpse into a character that has survived the death of his wife and daughter (in a 1972 car-crash) and his son Beau (from cancer in 2015).

The fact that Biden’s over-arching message has remained one of hope and perseverance in the face of such personal trials should be proof-enough that he is the antithesis of Donald Trump. This short and well-detailed account will offer a solid introduction to the life of a man who (agree or disagree) has given millions of Americans a reason to hope.