Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. sounded an optimistic note in his address to ULI Spring Meeting attendees in Seattle, showing some of the populist spirit that earned him the nickname “Uncle in Chief.”
“I have never been more optimistic about the chances of the United States of America than I am today,” said Biden, who answered questions from ULI trustee Patrick Callahan, founder and chief executive officer of Urban Renaissance Group.
Biden steered clear of the many controversies swirling around Washington, but he touched on several of the major issues facing the country, including Russia’s policies and the fate of the European Union.
“Putin’s objective is to disrupt the world order,” not to create a new empire, Biden told the ULI audience. “The bottom line is Russia concluded they are better off if there is not a unified Europe and there is not a unified NATO.” Putin’s attempts to meddle in international affairs is “the biggest assault since World War II on the liberal world order,” he said.
Biden, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also touched on President Trump’s recent overtures to authoritarian leaders around the world, including Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. These overtures will trigger ramifications to U.S. relationships around the world, he said. “It matters. These things are connected.”
Callahan asked about the latest move to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—one of the Obama administration’s signature pieces of legislation—just a day before the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to vote.
“I don’t think the Senate will pass it,” Biden said, adding that the legislation would be disruptive for “an awful lot of people.” Trump “doesn’t know much about the details, and it matters,” he said. “Health care is so much more complicated than foreign policy.”
But most of Biden’s remarks were focused on the opportunities available to the United States, despite the swirl of global issues. Sprinkling in stories of his father’s advice and of his own experience overcoming personal tragedy, he focused on the positive elements that drive Americans.
Many common goals are achievable in the short term, including building modern infrastructure; improving education, including free education at community colleges; and developing an energy system based entirely on alternative fuels, he said. “This is not beyond our capacity,” he said. “All this stuff is in our wheelhouse.”
China remains one of the biggest opportunities for the United States, he emphasized. Despite its economic growth, China still has an urgent need for clean water, energy, jobs, and basic infrastructure as its population moves into urban areas.
“We want them to do well,” Biden said. “It’s in our interest for them to do well. . . . They buy our products.”
The impediment to achieving many of the country’s goals is Washington, he said, not the public. “I think the public has moved well beyond where the political debate is” on many social issues, he said. “This country is way beyond what most politicians in both parties think they have to adjust to.”
He also downplayed what some have reported as an increase in racism and far-right ideals. Ten to 15 percent of the country has always been xenophobic and racist, he said. “It’s always been the case.” But he said it would be a mistake to assume those views are held by a broad swath of the working class.
Biden decried the negative tone of the recent presidential election campaign, citing a recent study that says fewer words were spoken about policy during this campaign than during any previous election, and that candidates fell into the “mosh pit of attacking each other.”
“Looking at politics today, it’s all about motive,” Biden said. Politicians no longer talk and socialize together and don’t really know each other, he noted. “I think it is one of the reasons government is so dysfunctional.”
Near the end of the session, Biden stood and began patrolling the stage, sounding like a politician working a campaign crowd. “Come on, this is the United States of America!” he said. “We think big. We’ve always believed that there isn’t a damn thing we can’t do.”
There are enormous opportunities around the world, Biden said. For example, he supports more foreign direct investment in U.S. infrastructure. “You can’t take away the building if things go bad,” he noted.
But he said there are many key issues around the world that need to be addressed, including the definition of sea and air rights in the modern world, citing China’s burgeoning claims in the South China Sea. “We need to develop the rules of the road for the 21st century,” he said, similar to the way international laws were developed in the wake of World War II.
To achieve the goals, “we need to focus on what is in our interests—what is going to affect the well-being of our children and grandchildren,” he said.
Biden called on the audience to abandon the pessimism that is common in political discussions today. “Come on, man,” he said. “You’re the people who are thinking about how to develop cities, how to develop neighborhoods, how to develop countries.”
One of Biden’s key initiatives since leaving office is continuing work on the so-called “cancer moonshot,” which is focused on finding a cure. “We are on the cusp of so many phenomenal breakthroughs,” he said. On a basic level, the program gives people hope, he said. “It’s hard to live without hope.”
Though Biden is out of public office for the first time since his 20s, he said he has no plans to retire. “I still care deeply about trying to affect public policy,” he told the ULI audience.