Barely a day goes by when the calmness of the age of Biden is not contrasted to the pyrotechnics of Trump. This is misleading on two levels. First, the age of Trump is not over. I could easily envisage Donald Trump taking the Republican nomination in 2024. Who would dare stand in his way? But it also understates the contrast between Joe Biden and any recent US president, even Barack Obama, who became progressively more soporific as his presidency wore on. Yet Obama still gave word-perfect speeches — the professor-in-chief — right until he left office. Moreover, the lack of drama around Obama always felt like it appeared in the same shot as the populist backlash against him.
With Biden, everything should be seen on a split screen. On the left side you see the calm, prosaic, mild-mannered elderly president carrying out his daily business as if everything was right with the world. In another galaxy on the right, we watch an authoritarian mass movement gathering pace. No US president could be better justified in appealing to the better angels of our nature, or asking Americans to pay any price and bear any burden, than Biden would be in today’s circumstances. Yet he carries on as if things were situation normal. There is nothing normal about the times we live in.
Is this just the way Biden is, or is he following a premeditated strategy? My instinct goes with the latter. Biden has proved in other ways that even at 78, a politician is capable of changing their habits. Before the 2020 election, it was commonplace to lament Biden’s mind-numbing prolixity. Over the years I have attended dozens of dinners and galas in Washington in which a Biden speech went on for aeons longer than advertised. There must exist somewhere a unique Biden-specific catering company that knows how to keep 500 dinners fresh and warm for 40 minutes longer than scheduled. Actually, forget that: Washington hotel mass dinners are inedible even when they arrive on time.
Since taking the Democratic nomination 14 months ago, Biden’s remarks have been almost uniformly short, concise and, um, un-Bideneseque. He has also almost purged himself of Bidenisms — that foot-in-mouth tendency that has dogged him for half a century in Washington. To be sure, he still mangles words every now and then, and frequently edits himself mid-sentence. He should probably not have called Vladimir Putin a “killer” last March, or admitted there was a “crisis” on the US-Mexico border.
But the only genuinely self-harming gaffe that I can recollect since he became the Democratic nominee was when he told an African-American radio host that “you ain’t black” if you chose Trump over Biden. He had to apologise for that. By the standards of the preceding decades, Biden is almost a different person.
Both of these change-of-habits are as welcome as they are surprising. I am less sure about whether Biden’s “nothing to see here, move along” approach is the right one for the internal challenges America faces. I can understand his logic. By focusing on getting things done, rather than the deranged condition of the Republican party, Biden is following the advice of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer to “accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
The problem is that getting things done and acting robustly on the Republican threat to US democracy are connected. It will be hard for Biden to lay down the foundations of lasting change unless the Republicans experience an utterly improbable road-to-Damascus, or are soundly defeated more than once. Perhaps the electorate will appreciate the larger tone that Biden is trying to set. At some point, however, he will need to drive home the hard realities to the American people. Bipartisanship is a forlorn goal when one party’s aim is to deliver a scorched earth defeat to the other. US democracy is suffering a siege from within. Biden’s demeanour has soothed people’s nerves. I fear circumstances will eventually compel him to rattle America’s cage. Rana, what is your take on Biden’s contrived unexcitingness? Is seeing no evil and hearing no evil the right approach?
Ed, it is absolutely the right approach. Biden is a transitional president, not because he’s in any way unimportant or slight — just the opposite — but because he is the man making the multi-decade pivot in our political economy that will take another 40 years to perfect.
What he can get done politically is one story. But what he’s trying to do is another: turn back financialisation, bring back industrial policy, make the Democratic party one that can run on both diversity and appeal to working people — and perhaps most profoundly — rethink America’s place in the world, since the one world, two systems paradigm with China is now a given.
I love that he’s not talking much — he’s doing. Whatever the headlines say, I see a lot of people in this administration swimming in the same direction around these goals. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Other leaders, younger ones, will finish it in the years to come, as the demographic shifts between the boomers and millennials continue and the beliefs and desires of this new generation solidify. But to me, less talk is more right now. There’s too much to be done.
PS My one caveat to that is I’d love to see Biden start a series of FDR-like mission speeches, in 15-minute pops, once a week, that share a problem that the government is tackling and provide a solution, using real people and places. We need to believe that government can be effective, in real time. And we need a positive narrative feedback loop for the country to start buying into.