intelligencer chats

President Biden’s Highly Consequential, Kind of Boring Debut

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

What do the action-filled yet comparatively low-key opening days of Joe Biden’s presidency say about the rest of his first term? I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti for some insight on the matter.

Benjamin Hart: Since Biden took office, he has issued a blitz of executive orders — on COVID, climate change, immigration, health care, and more — attempting to undo much of President Trump’s executive legacy (which was, similarly, an attempt to undo much of President Obama’s legacy). Meanwhile, his party is trying to win some Republican support for an enormous stimulus package, with Biden signaling that while he’d prefer the bill to be bipartisan, he is likely to move forward unilaterally if need be. The man himself has been fairly quiet, offering comment on key issues but certainly not driving the news the way his predecessor did. (No surprise there.) Is this pretty much what Biden and his team had envisioned for his first couple of weeks?

Gabriel Debenedetti: Basically! Obviously, there’s plenty they can’t control, but they spent a ton of time scripting their opening moves during the transition period, so this flurry of activity was pretty well-choreographed. Which is also why no one paying close attention to Biden or his campaign or the transition or D.C. has been all that surprised by it. The one thing they’d been expecting but didn’t get: Trump tweets. But for obvious reasons, that’s no longer part of the equation.

Still, that’s not to say there hasn’t been some real drama that could have genuinely important implications. For one, the struggle over the power-sharing agreement in the 50-50 Senate between Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell could be read as a sideshow, but it really did set the tone for what looks like it’ll be a fairly tense Senate term. And the Republican reaction to Biden’s opening COVID relief offer hasn’t necessarily been surprising, but the back-and-forth over how long Biden will negotiate with the GOP before plowing ahead with a Dem-only bill is interesting.

If you’ve tuned into this White House expecting anything like the nonstop high-wire drama of the last one, though, you’re better off watching reruns. Which was Biden’s whole promise.

Ben: Would those reruns air on the Masochist Channel?

Gabriel: The Gorilla Channel.

Ben: Throughout the endless primary, one of the central critiques of Biden was that he clung to an outdated, romantic notion of the Senate as a place of comity and compromise and was too focused on winning over Republicans, which President Obama showed the futility of attempting to do. Biden’s rhetoric on this kind of stuff doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. But is it a surprise that he has so quickly signaled that he’s willing to go it alone on COVID if the GOP votes aren’t there? And do you think that basically means the end of even trying to reach across the aisle, or is his stance here limited to this one bill?

Gabriel: No, and I actually disagree with the idea that his rhetoric hasn’t changed. He used to talk constantly about how Republican senators would have some sort of post-Trump epiphany, but that language has become far, far, far less common in his day-to-day over the past six months or so. He clearly still thinks there’s room for some compromise — look how excited he was to have the ten GOP senators offering an obviously unacceptable COVID bill over for a two-hour chat in the Oval Office — but he’s also been very clear that he won’t rely on them if he doesn’t need to. And he doesn’t!

The question about whether this extends beyond COVID remains to be seen, obviously, but the politics on this one make it so easy for him to at least get started this way: Americans very obviously want relief. If Republicans don’t want to sign onto his relief plan, he can go it alone, and then make sure Americans know “the GOP voted against giving you checks” or something like that. Simple! I think it’s very important to keep in mind that he wants to be able to say he tried to win them over, both for the public messaging and also to make sure the handful of centrist-minded Dems who love talking about compromise (Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, et al.) are comfortable with the path forward.

I’ve written about this a bit before, but one thing that’s important to remember about Joe Biden, who’s often described, wrongly, as a “moderate” or a “centrist,” is that he doesn’t just try to find compromise no matter what. He tries to find the central position of the Democratic Party, broadly defined. Well, the party has moved when it comes to the question of this kind of cooperation, and it has certainly moved even more quickly on the importance of massive relief. Biden may not temperamentally be the kind of person who loves unilateral action, but he’s getting there. As Chris Coons, the Delaware senator and close Biden friend, told me when I wrote about this general topic last fall, “Joe Biden is someone who has shown a willingness, when history compels it, to change.”

Ben: On that note: Between the gesturing toward unilateralism, his more-aggressive-than-expected moves on climate, and his appointment of left-leaning figures to some key positions around the government, perhaps especially economic ones — and I could go on with this list — progressives haven’t had too much to complain about yet from a guy they fought pretty hard against. How long do you figure that honeymoon will last?

Gabriel: Well, first let’s see how far he gets on this round of COVID relief. We’re assuming he plows ahead with his nearly $2 trillion plan, which progressives widely like. That may still not happen, especially if it gets whittled down a bit so that it can be passed as a budget-focused measure and thus be eligible for reconciliation, through which it could pass by a 51-50 Senate vote. (Sorry for all the jargon. It’s a brave new world out there.) But it’s also important to remember that this opening flood of executive orders and legislation was specifically designed to be overwhelming and to counter the Trump years. Once it’s over, in a few weeks or months, it would be surprising not to see activists pushing Biden on issue X, Y, or Z. That’s what activists do, as Obama likes to remind people. Let’s say the COVID-relief bill passes later this month. I’d expect plenty of pressure on Biden to move quickly to try and give his full immigration plan a day in the Senate, even though, as currently constituted, it stands little chance of passing.

On a similar note, is he going to push for a wide expansion of voting rights, as most Democrats on the Hill have advocated? He’ll want to be careful about what he chooses to emphasize when, as far as legislation goes, but if he doesn’t push that, he’ll get heat there too.

Ben: As you said, this onslaught of activity was meant to seem like an onslaught. Perhaps as a side effect of that, it seems to me that some pretty major stuff is happening that might be going a little under the radar. For instance, today Biden is going to announce an end to American support of the war in Yemen. This is a big deal, but I feel like it may get lost in the blitz. Is there anything else you think fits that bill?

Gabriel: In no particular order, here’s an extremely non-comprehensive list: the order for agencies to review a massive raft of recent environmental regulations, probably aiming to rescind a bunch of them; the refilling of a completely emptied-out State Department; the confirmation of the first permanent Department of Homeland Security secretary in nearly two years; the appointment of new Labor and financial regulators … Actually, I’ll stop there, because the real answer is: basically everything.

Ben: There’s a weird thing where the news seems kind of boring (in a good way), but what’s actually happening is extremely consequential. Which may be an indictment of the media, aka “us.”

Gabriel: Depends how broadly you want to define “us,” but, um, yes. I often think about what Michael Bennet must be thinking. No one paid much attention to his presidential run, but he was clearly onto something when he tweeted in 2019: “If you elect me president, I promise you won’t have to think about me for 2 weeks at a time.

I’ll do my job watching out for North Korea and ending this trade war.”

Ben: Ha, I remember that well. I thought it was a great pitch!

President Biden’s Highly Consequential, Kind of Boring Debut