For those closely following the initial steps of the Biden administration, it’s obvious the new president’s team is placing a premium on creating the impression that it’s successfully following a carefully planned rollout. Each day has a topical theme, and Joe Biden’s time is ruthlessly rationed. One purpose, of course, is to create a vivid contrast with the previous occupant of the White House, and from this Washington Post report, it seems a success:
Almost every day of his young tenure, President Biden has entered the State Dining Room, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln looking down and wood burning in the fireplace. He speaks on the planned topic of the day. He sits at an undersized desk and searches for a pen to sign his latest stack of executive orders. Within 30 minutes of entering the camera’s frame, he has left it.
It is all plotted and planned. Little room is left for the unscripted or the unusual.
Biden’s first full week in office has showcased an almost jarring departure from his predecessor’s chaotic style, providing the first window into a tenure whose mission is not only to remake the White House in Biden’s image but also to return the presidency itself to what he sees as its rightful path.
But there’s more to this disciplined approach than adding a redundant reason to wish Donald Trump good riddance. Biden and his people are undoubtedly aware that they need a sense of momentum to encourage Democratic unity and just enough Republican cooperation to get his agenda passed. And getting things done is the key to avoiding a midterm setback that will make it truly impossible to get more things done. Recent presidents provide plenty of object lessons in the dangers of a slow or clumsy start.
Bill Clinton stumbled early
Clinton was the first Democrat to occupy the White House since Jimmy Carter, which meant limited experience for his eager and relatively young team and a disorganized transition that got the new administration off to a bad start, as Vox’s Richard Skinner later explained: “An atmosphere of chaos and disorganization permeated this transition. Clinton’s policy advisers were divided between centrists and liberals. The president-elect stumbled into a controversy over allowing open military service by gay individuals that soon set him against the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of his own party.”
Clinton also had some conspicuous personnel problems, including trouble finding an attorney general who had not violated laws on reimbursement of domestic servants (the so-called Nannygate scandal that ended two AG nominations and complicated the top Pentagon nomination) and some disorganization in the White House itself. His first major legislative initiative was an economic-stimulus plan that Senate Republicans gutted. After successfully (albeit narrowly) getting a budget approved, the Clinton administration got bogged down in a complex and ultimately unsuccessful health-care-reform effort. And it failed to pursue the sort of political reforms that might have kept 1992’s Ross Perot voters from returning to the GOP voting habits many of them had abandoned.
In 1994, all these setbacks and lost opportunities contributed to a disastrous midterm election in which Democrats lost both houses of Congress for the first time since the early days of the Eisenhower administration. Democrats didn’t regain both houses until 2006.
Obama lost control
A goodly number of Biden advisers served in one capacity or another in the Clinton administration. Far more worked for Obama and Biden when they took office in 2009.
Unlike Clinton, Obama had the benefit of a solid popular-vote majority and coattails that gave his party a big margin of control in the House and 58 Democratic senators. By July, Democrats had a supermajority of 60 senators after Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter switched parties and Minnesota’s Al Franken was seated upon the resolution of a disputed election.
But before gaining complete control of the Senate, the new administration lost early momentum when it had to pare back and reconfigure its own economic-stimulus package to secure Republican votes, a step widely thought to have reduced its effectiveness.
Meanwhile, the fruitless pursuit of Republican senators in the design of Obamacare slowed down its progress and complicated its provisions, nearly producing a catastrophe when Ted Kennedy’s illness and death, and then a shocking Republican victory in the special election to replace him, robbed Democrats of their supermajority.
If disorganization was the biggest avoidable problem besetting Clinton in his early days, for Obama it was probably the failure to keep his powerful campaign infrastructure in place to mobilize support for his agenda and keep pressure on a Republican Party that saw no real risk in obstructing him.
Like Clinton, Obama suffered a calamity in his first midterm election, with congressional and downballot losses that emboldened Republicans further and made a mockery of the talk after 2008 that Democrats were building a durable majority. Democrats lost the House and any measure of real control in the Senate.
George W. Bush’s accidental success
If Clinton and Obama showed how much promise could be squandered through poor planning and strategy or just bad luck, the administration between theirs got out of the early doldrums via a bolt from the blue.
Bush got off to a reasonably good start despite the shady nature of his elevation to the White House in 2000, easily enacting one of his campaign’s top priorities, a big tax-cut bill (made possible, ironically, by Clinton’s achievement of budget surpluses). But his party lost control of the Senate in May 2001 when Vermont’s Jim Jeffords changed sides to become a Democrat, and by the end of the summer, Bush’s job-approval ratings had slumped to a meh 51 percent. He was likely en route to the usual midterm setback and a further loss of power.
All that changed, of course, on September 11, 2001. W. was transformed overnight into the wildly popular commander-in-chief of a unified nation, and his party managed the very unusual feat of gaining ground in 2002 and consolidated its control of Congress. It took Bush a longer time to squander his wartime popularity than his father did after the Gulf War, but he did so thoroughly by 2008.
Presidents can overcome a bad start
Clinton and Obama both had comebacks after a slow start and a disastrous first midterm election, winning second terms and posting some impressive accomplishments (including, in Clinton’s case, becoming more popular than ever even as Republicans impeached him). And in his own way, Trump also showed there’s life after failure or, in his case, failures every day. Despite his party controlling Congress and bending the knee to his every whim, it took him nearly a year to post a significant legislative accomplishment: the 2017 tax-cut measure. Republicans lost a string of special elections the first two years of the Trump presidency and then, in 2018, lost the House and some key governorships that ultimately played a role in thwarting his attempted 2020 election coup.
Trump had his own good luck in inheriting a strong economic recovery and in harvesting an epochal trend in conservative-media infrastructure that gave him a way to convince his supporters to reject the exposure of his many lies and missteps as nothing more than enemy misinformation. But in the end he came within a distressingly small margin of winning a second term on the scorched ground of his divisive and violence-inducing rhetoric.
So Biden’s current effort to get off to a fast start isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, and there will be positive and negative influences on his power that he can neither anticipate nor control. But I can think of no precedent in which early success hurt a new president. So he and his people might as well get a few steps down the road before the winds of fortune buffet them.