The American presidency offers numerous opportunities for a chief executive to make use of his symbolic role as head of state in a way that advances the national interest while simultaneously benefiting his own political standing. Donald Trump usually forfeited these opportunities, either because he was unable to pretend to care about people who didn’t vote for him or because he couldn’t adapt his free-form insult-comic rants to a teleprompter format.
Joe Biden has reaped the normal rewards that come from behaving like a normal president — perhaps benefitting more than most due to the contrast with his unhinged predecessor. This has naturally infuriated Republicans, who see Biden’s strategy of reaping positive coverage by acting normal as a form of cheating.
The party’s agony in responding to this was best exemplified by Tucker Carlson, who covered Biden’s speech by adding a small box of his scowling face in the corner of the screen so that Fox News viewers could share his disdain and sit through the speech with the promise of a scalding rebuttal.
Carlson turned out to be angry that Biden promoted vaccines. “The military will give you that shot, and if you take that shot, things potentially could get back to normal,” he sneered. “No mention at all of the people who might not want to take the shot.” That is true! Likewise, Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech made no mention of people who support Soviet communism, and George W. Bush’s Ground Zero speech snubbed Americans who support plane hijacking. Presidents take positions in speeches, and the current president no longer caters to the dangerous ignorance of vaccine skeptics.
Carlson likewise interpreted Biden’s goal that the virus will be largely sidelined by Independence Day as some kind of threat: “This is a free people. This is a free country. How dare you tell us who we can spend the Fourth of July with?” Of course, public-health restrictions are set by governors, not the president. And in any case, Biden was suggesting people who are currently afraid to gather with friends will be able to do so without risk, not actually threatening to withhold legal permission to do so.
One could rightfully push back that Biden is underpromising by leaving almost four months until normalcy returns, when current vaccination trends suggest the virus might be vanquished earlier. But the idea that he is threatening to have jackbooted thugs come to snatch away your hot dog is pure fantasy.
Other Republican commentators seized on the strange notion that Biden was threatening the public in the guise of promising an end to the pandemic. He “threatens to take away the cookie if the little children don’t behave,” complained Laura Ingraham.
Yet in their scramble to find a party line, some of the conservative commentators seemed unable to decide if Biden was a terrifying authoritarian menace or a pathetic, feeble old man. Ingraham — immediately before complaining about Biden’s (imaginary) threat to cancel the Fourth of July — described his speech as “funereal.”
Conservative publisher and pardoned criminal Conrad Black develops this line of thinking further. Black describes Biden’s speech as a “complete and total failure.” And to show that he really means “complete and total,” he includes Biden’s lack of girth. “Nor is the president’s appearance reassuring,” he complains. “He has a sickly pallor, is underweight, and quavers at times. … Trump, who looks like Tarzan in comparison …”
Yes, not so long ago, we had a strong, healthy president capable of staying up to the wee hours watching Fox News and still waking up fresh enough to hop into his golf cart in the morning.
You can see in these responses a sublimated rage that Trump set the bar so low; Biden needs only to step over it to seem triumphant. What they can’t seem to grasp is exactly who is responsible for this.