As California’s presidential primaries approach, I ask myself: Will this country really accept a president who makes history, breaks barriers, and challenges our deepest biases about leadership?
In other words, are we ready for a president named Joe?
Former Vice President Joe Biden is often described in campaign coverage as a safe, traditional choice. That’s wrong. Sure, Biden doesn’t have to confront centuries of American patriarchy like Amy Klobuchar must, or overcome the racism that faces Andrew Yang. But Biden does have the entire weight of American political history against him.
This country has never had a president named Joe. Nor has any major political party ever dared to nominate a Joe.
Why is being called Joe such a handicap? Having chafed under the name for 46 years (it could have been worse—Mom originally wanted to name me Duncan), I have a theory: Joe is simply too relatable a name—too common, too average—to ever command the respect necessary for elevation to the highest office in the land.
That may seem like a strange thing to say, since politicians spend considerable time trying to seem like they are one of us. But that is a pretense built on the falsity of American populism. For all our claims that anyone can become president, we Americans consistently elect people to high office who seem greater than us—richer, smarter, tougher, more accomplished, better-looking.
The United States does not make Average Joes its presidents. We vote aspirationally, wishing we could be as deft with words as Bill Clinton, as cool as Barack Obama, or as good at getting away with bad behavior as Donald Trump.
The name Joe is weighed down by its association with the middle-class, the middle-brow, and the middle-of-the-road. Those categories are all shrinking in a politically polarized country divided between rich and poor. The name Joe now has baggage: we are dismissed as nobodies—Joe Blow or Joe Schmo. And we’re not anybody’s idea of health. Joe Sixpack did not get that name because of his abs.
That is not to say that the name Joe is powerless. For one thing, a huge body of research shows that our names influence the jobs we get, where live, and whom we marry. There’s even a scientific term for the phenomenon—nominative determinism.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the idea of Joe representing the commoner dates back until at least the 1830s. And the name is way more Old Testament than that. Joseph—Yosef in Hebrew—earns a big role in the book of Genesis for getting sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt and then imprisoned. Eventually he gets a break interpreting dreams for Pharaoh, and ends up as the second most powerful official in the Nile region.
Politically, it’s been downhill for Joes ever since. The New Testament Joseph takes a backseat to his wife and child, because, after all, he isn’t Jesus’ real father. While versions of the name Joseph are common around the world, its associations with leadership involve ghastly villains like Stalin and Goebbels.
In the U.S., the name has fallen out of fashion. Today you’ll encounter legions of Liams and Logans before you’ll bump into a Joe. And if you’re asking for Joe, you’re likely to be served average coffee. We Joes don’t even amount to a latte.
Despite the name’s reputation, there are real advantages to being named Joe. I’ve always appreciated the low expectations. I never feel like I have to be the most brilliant or charming person in the room, and I can show up late or underdressed to any party, because “that’s just Joe.”
But in politics, being a Joe is a pickle. And Vice President Biden is a classic Joe. He’s dependable, relatable and likable. But we’re also told by the commentariat that he’s too small for the presidency—he’s not brilliant enough, not tough enough, not progressive enough. The conventional wisdom is that if we picked this Joe as president, we would be settling for average.
What can this Joe do overcome his Joe-ness? W.C. Fields—yep, that’s a reference as dated as Biden—famously advised, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” So maybe it’s not too late for a change. Biden could pick his middle name Robinette, and start going by Rob.
Or maybe he can hope that this country has finally tired of being exceptional and dramatic, and is now willing to embrace the boring and the steady. But this Joe wouldn’t bet on it.
Sad to say, Joe Biden can’t even count on solidarity amongst his fellow Joes. I, for one, think Biden seems behind the times. I’m way more impressed with Elizabeth Warren.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.