THE symbolism is certainly pleasing enough. Out goes the Churchill statue from Joe Biden’s White House office. In its place comes a bust of the Mexican labour activist Cesar Chavez.

This sits across the room from the head of Rosa Parks, the 60s civil-rights hero who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Also removed, originally hung there by Trump, is a portrait of President Andrew Jackson: a slaver who forcibly (and lethally) replaced Native Americans with white Americans on their own land.

Trump preened (and pressed a button on his desk for Diet Coke) in front of flags from the branches of America’s military. Biden will sit, more prosaically, in front of an American flag and another with a Presidential seal (there’s no Coke button).

The therapeutic function of these Oval Office decor stories – two weeks after Moosehead and his gun-toting homies were trashing the Capitol building – is all too obvious. The peaceful transfer of power is also meant to imply a qualitative upgrade in values.

And before we go any further, removing Churchill’s head from any visibility in Biden’s White House is undoubtedly a sharp message sent to the Trump-courting Johnson government – and maybe more deeply to Britishness in general.

Who could forget Biden’s instinctual response during his 2020 campaign, when the BBC’s Nick Bryant called out to the candidate for comment. “The BBC? I’m Irish!” he twinkled.

He’s spoken about how his elders in the family remembered the violence of the Black and Tans (a brutal police force that was ordered into Ireland by no less than Winston Churchill himself in 1920). Biden also cites the Irish radical Wolfe Tone as an inspiration. His Irish Aunt Gertie used to joke about his father: “Joey, it’s not his fault he’s English!”

And in 2006, when explaining his “exit strategy” for the Iraq War – which envisioned a three-way, ethnically based partition of the country – Biden said: “Look, I know these people … My grandfather was Irish and hated the British. It’s like in the Balkans. They all grow up hating each other.”

How does that Biden fit with this Biden, from his inaugural speech: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal”?

It fits pretty well. From the beginning of his political career, Joe Biden has understood his white, Catholic-and-Irish-oriented, petit-bourgeois Delaware background to be his conduit to American mainstream opinion.

Whether his record justifies that is worth some examining. As many on the left are pointing out, our relief at being momentarily released from the Caligularity should be tempered by the following (and sobering) realisation.

Over his long political life, Biden has been directly supportive of the immiserating and demonising policy decisions that drove rust-belt, suburban and rural Americans crazy in the first place. Who engineered the conditions that drove them into the arms of the orange-tinted clown-despot? To some degree, Biden and his works.

The meticulous account given in Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden by Branko Marcetic (who makes very clear his affections for the socialist Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) is hard to ignore.

Contemporary America, gripped by racial tension and class resentment, is partly the result of Biden’s relentless wars on crime and drugs, and his early embrace of economic neoliberalism. On the former point, Marcetic notes that “Biden has tended to get swept up in every right-wing panic of the last few decades, often going even further than Republicans in his response”.

There’s a chilling 1993 congressional video on the web, where Biden is contemptuous about “social conditioning” as the cause of criminal violence and pessimistic about the possibility of “rehabilitating super-predators”.

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For Biden, this justified much harder and more mandatory sentencing, as well as a massive expansion of prison-building.

Adding a War on Drugs (even their mildest possession) to his War on Crime, and happily co-operating with Republican opponents in the Reagan era, Biden’s legacy is a federal prison population that had ballooned by 734%, 35 years after 1980 – half of them for drug offences.

It’s worth noting that by 2016, while African Americans made up 15% of overall drug users in the population, they comprised 74% of those sentenced. Now, Biden’s role as vice-president to Obama, and his choice of Kamala Harris as vice-president, no doubt helped him secure enough of the black vote to win in 2020.

But Marcetic’s account of Biden’s antipathy to bussing – the 70s and 80s post-civil-rights policy, where pupils from different racial backgrounds were distributed across schools, attempting to break down historic segregation – makes his affinity to black voters seem puzzling.

(Indeed, when contending for the Democratic nomination in 2019, Kamala Harris herself pointed at Biden’s co-operation with segregationist Republican politicians to oppose bussing – and spoke as someone who had taken those buses as a student. The Rosa Parks statue may be as much a self-corrective for Biden as an inspiration).

Marcetic’s second major claim is that, for much of his career, Biden has been an avid welfare hawk and financial deregulator: a small-state “neoliberal”, before the term became fashionable. This didn’t just hasten the Democrats’ departure from the values of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society – but enabled a massive transfer of assets from ordinary Americans to financial and corporate elites.

Biden always “seeks to find a non-existent middle-ground between working-class Americans and the rich and powerful, often leaning towards the latter”, writes Marcetic.

The indictment is long – but Biden’s key crime is the central role he played in abolishing the Glass-Steagal Act. This broke down the barrier between domestic and speculative banking that led directly to the financial Crash of 2007-2008. In the Clinton era, Biden’s enthusiastic support of the Nafta free trade agreement also meant the loss of millions of domestic jobs to Mexico and beyond.

FROM this account, it’s hard not to see Biden as a crucial driver of the very processes that enabled Trump – the stagnation of wages and the flight of industry, the growing polarisation and mutual suspicion that marks everyday American society. Marcetic genuinely fears there’s every chance that Biden’s presidency “will produce the rise of someone much worse” than Trump.

And yet… even within the record that Yesterday’s Man relentlessly outlines, Biden has taken positions which could drive the policy and narrative ambition needed for this moment. For example, Biden’s earliest political victories were rooted in battles for conservation, successfully defending natural beauty against industrial despoilers.

At this late stage, he might well have found the lines and the logic to bridge the disgruntled of America with the planetary crisis. “When I hear the words ‘climate change’, I also hear another word ‘jobs’,” he recently quipped. The Cesar Chavez bust may be there to focus his intent.

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Another scrape of optimism may come again from his early-careers opposition to the escalations in Vietnam, and his vacillations between dove and hawk over subsequent American interventions. Trump was an unstable improviser in global affairs, but his desire to keep American out of costly wars was pretty consistent (and consistently popular).

It’s not absolutely certain that Biden will return even to the status quo ante of Obama’s geopolitics, with his Tuesday morning drone kill lists and other enthusiasms.

One might have wished for a small geodesic dome, containing the three-headed chimera of Buckminster Fuller, Ursula Le Guin and James Baldwin, to adorn Biden’s Oval Office.

But that’s for the parallel universe. In this one, our hope can only be that this slippery old shape-shifter might, in the final act of his life-drama, settle into his finest form. And at least steer his superpower steadily away from the abyss.

Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden by Branko Marcetic is available from Verso Books