The Soviet Union used to alternate between bald leaders and ones with formidable hair. The US, which is seldom ruled by the smooth of pate, swings around a different axis. It seems to crave a breather after each high-drama president.

The Richard Nixon years gave on to some water-treading under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan led to George HW Bush and the prelapsarian tranquillity of the 1990s. After the younger Bush and his still-simmering wars came Barack “No Drama” Obama. It follows that Donald Trump, the author of so much tumult, should prefigure a restful four years under Joe Biden.

Moderate Republicans are counting on it. Not to impugn their principles, but they might be slower to say “Never Trump” if the alternative was as leftwing as Bernie Sanders or his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren. Mr Biden’s emergence as the Democratic candidate for the White House enabled their apostasy. What threat is there, after all, in a twice-elected vice-president, a voter for welfare reform, a clubbable bipartisan of the old Washington? What radical potential?

More, perhaps, than in any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. Mr Biden is running some way to the left of his old boss, Mr Obama, or of Bill Clinton before him. On healthcare, but also on housing, education and climate change abatement, he is a late-life convert to expansive federal government. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and the public debts it has incurred, he proposed to raise taxes on higher earners. 

It is true that any politician can draw up a bold manifesto. What gives this one its promise — or, for conservatives, its menace — are the circumstances of the day. Such is their polling surge that Democrats now contemplate (“expect” is overdoing it) victories in once-daunting Senate races. Even with control of that chamber, no programme is assured passage. But without it, a President Biden would be reliant on — don’t laugh — Republican co-operation. A Democratic majority gives him a chance.

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Nor would the Senate be the only handmaid to his agenda. At 77, Mr Biden will need a strong vice-president. Of the touted candidates, most are to his left. Even the exception, former UN ambassador Susan Rice, is not moderate so much as hard to place on domestic issues.

If these institutional variables align, they will still not constitute the ultimate tailwind for his programme. That is public sentiment itself. The image of America as a land of masochistic self-reliance belies its taste for universal public services, healthcare reform and taxes on the rich. If Mr Biden has changed, he has done so in step with his compatriots. As a proxy measure, consider that voters still place him much nearer the middle ground than Mr Trump, even as they register that he has shuffled left.

Biden as change-maker: it is still a jarring picture, somehow. But that makes it all the more likely to materialise.

Of the three Democrat presidents who did most to build, entrench and expand the welfare state, none had seemed destined for anything of the kind. Franklin Roosevelt was a blue blood whose New Deal remains America’s noblest act of class-treachery. Harry Truman was a machine politician from the pragmatic Midwest. As for Johnson, progressives feared they were getting an unreconstructed vulgarian, not the Civil Rights Act and Medicare.

It was not despite their outward pragmatism and their lack of leftist credentials that these men achieved reform. It was because of them. They were impossible to paint as extremists. 

This trick is not unique to US politics. Britain’s postwar prime minister Clement Attlee was such a parody of English diffidence that, when asked if he was an agnostic, he supposedly said: “I don’t know.” After six years in office, he had nationalised healthcare and major industries. No firebrand could have done it.

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Does Mr Biden have a trace of these leaders’ skill? That he is on his third bid for the White House suggests not. What he does have is their seeming innocuousness. Bold policies can be smuggled under its cover. In that sense, Mr Trump’s jibe at him — “Sleepy Joe” — is not just failing to land. It is misconceived in the first place.

The more he is seen as a do-nothing grandpa, the more license Mr Biden has to advance ideas that would have done for another candidate. Americans, if he wins, should not count on a quiet life.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

Via Financial Times