During the first hundred days of Joe Biden’s presidency, it has dawned on Republicans that the man their standard-bearer once mocked as “Sleepy Joe” is a formidable adversary. And the quality that has made him so effective up to this point is, well, his sleepiness. “I think Biden is a disaster for the country, and his ideas are an atrocity. But he’s boring. He’s just boring,” complained alt-media personality Dan Bongino. This frustration is not confined to the party’s entertainment wing. “It’s always harder to fight against a nice person because usually people will sort of give him the benefit of the doubt,” grumbled Senator John Cornyn. At a recent speech to donors, Donald Trump was reduced to mocking his successor as “Saintly Joe Biden,” perhaps the feeblest moment in his decades-long career of schoolyard taunts.
It’s not that Saintly Joe invented the prototype of a president who acts politely. Barack Obama was nice. George W. Bush was nice. Bill Clinton got away with it because he could be so charming. George H.W. Bush sent scads of handwritten notes to everybody from his favorite snack manufacturer to the presidential candidate who defeated him. Treating everybody with unfailing courtesy is (or was) standard advice for any aspiring politician.
Biden’s advantage is that he’s not just nice; he’s also tedious. He is relentlessly enacting an ambitious domestic agenda — signing legislation that could cut child poverty by more than half, expanding Obamacare, and injecting the economy with a stimulus more than twice the size of what Obama’s Congress passed in 2009 — while arousing hardly any controversy. There’s nothing in Biden’s vanilla-ice-cream bromides for his critics to hook on to. Republicans can’t stop Biden because he is boring them to death.
Biden’s strategy of boringness is a fascinating counterpoint to a career spent trying desperately to be interesting. Biden used to overshare, with frequently disastrous results that led him to accurately self-diagnose as a “gaffe machine.” Whether his advanced age has slowed him down or made him wiser, he has finally given up his attention-seeking impulse and embraced the opposite objective. Biden’s success is a product of the crucial yet little-appreciated insight that substantive advances don’t require massive public fights. The drama of inspiration and conflict is not only unnecessary to promote change but even, in certain circumstances, outright counterproductive.
This method runs contrary to the DNA of the political-activism industry and the news media, which look at politics as a war and judge each side by how well it mobilizes its troops for combat. It especially offends the sensibility of many progressives, who see popular mobilization as the highest form of political organization.
Liberals have always categorized periods of conservative ascent as a kind of somnolence — bland, genial patriarchs like Reagan and Eisenhower tranquilizing the young. We likewise imagine our own political success as a triumph of mass participation. That kind of grassroots fervor did materialize on behalf of Obama in 2008. He and his supporters hoped they could convert that energy into a standing army he could tap to pressure Congress to enact his agenda.
Yet for all his policy successes, this ambition failed completely. Obama’s army demobilized after his election and did not return until four years later. The op-ed pages were filled with proposals written by despairing fans imagining just the right kind of rhetorical uplift Obama could deliver that would summon his crowds back to life. And he did deliver a lot of speeches, most of them — as one may expect of a president who was a successful author before going into politics — of excellent quality. None of this had any measurably positive effect on public opinion.
Political scientist George Edwards has made the case that presidential rhetoric hardly ever succeeds in moving public opinion toward the president’s position. A president can polarize opinion around a subject that many people haven’t given much thought to before, but all that does is move one party toward the president’s stance and the other party away from it. John Boehner recently complained that his Obama-era efforts to craft a bipartisan immigration bill were thwarted by the president’s efforts to whip up support for it. “Every time we’d get ready to move, the president would go out and give some speech, or he’d loosen up some immigration regulation and just kind of set everybody on fire,” he complained. Put aside the obviously self-serving nature of this account — it was Boehner who refused to bring immigration reform to a vote and Obama who managed to deliver his party’s support in Congress — and the premise has a certain truth. A president’s high-profile efforts to move public opinion tend to get the other party’s back up.
Biden has acted as if he decided to slide the presidential public-engagement bar all the way to the bottom and see what happens. In his public communication, he has put forth the most minimal effort that the news media will tolerate without staging a revolt. His interviews are infrequent and mostly news free. Biden’s rhetoric does not merely lack for galvanizing qualities; it is actively sedative. Even casual news consumers can almost recite the tropes along with him. His father told him, “Joey, a job isn’t just a paycheck, it’s your dignity.” “This is the United States of America, and there’s not a single thing we can’t do if we do it together.” And did you know he hails from a place called Scranton, Pennsylvania?
In the modern era, nearly every presidency has labored to control the political media’s narrative. The news cycle evolved from a schedule oriented around the evening news and the daily newspaper to the revolution of continuous news commentary on CNN and its imitators to the hyperfast loop of Twitter. The endless struggle of an administration had been to prod the chattering heads to focus on the president’s preferred message of the day.
Then Trump came along and blew up the strategy. His manic tweeting and frequent bloviation as president defied any planning or maneuver. “Infrastructure Week” became a Washington joke signifying the doomed efforts of Trump’s staff to focus on a popular subject, infrastructure being the prototypical example, which Trump would invariably ignore and then subvert by saying something comically false, unsubtly racist, or criminally inculpatory for the media to cover, until his staff gave up trying to control the message.
Biden has dispensed with the stream-of-consciousness ranting but kept the light touch in trying to steer the news cycle. He and his staff do, of course, employ the normal channels of presidential communication — official statements, video messages, and tweets — to register the president’s view that his appointees are well qualified, his bills helpful and necessary; that he observes major holidays and feels sad when famous people die. But there are none of the usual efforts to try to make these statements interesting enough to tempt the media to cover them. Instead, their rote proclamations, combining the ethos of the Hallmark Channel with the style of C-Span, seem designed to be ignored. The tedium is the message.
Possibly, this was the optimal communications strategy all along and Biden has discovered it only now. Another possibility is that the boring presidency has become necessary as a result of deep-seated changes in the interaction of American politics and culture.
Depending on which political scientists you ask, we currently live in an era of “negative partisanship,” “political sectarianism,” or partisanship as a “mega-identity.” All these terms are ways of saying that large numbers of Americans view the opposing party as not merely misguided but dangerous and horrifying. Their identification with one of the two major parties has increasingly crept into other aspects of American life.
It was only a generation ago that politics was considered by all but the most painfully earnest to be an uncool thing to care about. Even if you lived in Washington, D.C., it was normal to spend an evening with friends without ever bringing up politics — or, if the subject happened to arise, to discuss it through the prism of ironic detachment. Expressing partisan sentiment was especially unfashionable among college-educated people. National politics consumed much less attention in popular culture and general-interest magazines. Saturday Night Live might have done one political skit per show during the peak of a national election, with the jokes focusing on sight gags or personal foibles. “The Dole-Clinton election seemed to be not terribly contentious,” a former SNL writer recalled in a HuffPost interview. “In retrospect, Bush-Gore — before the ending, obviously — was certainly not as crazy polarizing and contentious as this.” A cliché of political journalism held that the 2000 campaign was the “Seinfeld election,” an election about nothing.
Republicans began mobilizing a good decade or more before Democrats did — retreating into a news bubble first defined by talk radio and then by Fox News (established in 1996). The Republican Party’s 1994 class, swept into Washington on a wave of anger, cast themselves as “revolutionaries” bent on saving the country from the civilizational threat posed by what they took to be Bill and Hillary Clinton’s libertinism and socialistic schemes. Not until George W. Bush’s reelection campaign did Democrats begin discussing the stakes of national politics in similarly existential terms. In 2004, Citizen Change began a campaign to make voting “cool” — it wasn’t yet — using the slogan “Vote or Die,” and Funny or Die started churning out PSAs on liberal causes like opposing Proposition 8 alongside its sketch comedy three years later. The very idea of comedians earnestly putting their craft at the service of a partisan cause was still novel; today, of course, it’s notable when a comedian doesn’t take a stand on national politics.
Trump’s presidency represented the apogee of these national trends. His appeal to his party was purely negative. Although Trump frequently wandered away from right-wing orthodoxy, the most right-wing Republicans came to adore him because of his lust for political combat. Policy details became secondary to the question of who ruled. When Obama attempted to regulate the private health-insurance market to require insurers to sell plans to people with preexisting conditions at the same rate as healthy customers, conservatives waged a twilight struggle to “preserve freedom.” When Trump turned around and promised that he would give everybody even better health care, conservatives did not bat an eyelash. (Trump was lying about this, of course, but not many Republican voters knew that.)
Policy substance mattered a great deal to Trump’s partners in Washington, but it hardly made a difference to his supporters. Peter Drucker once heard a right-wing orator in Weimar Germany tell a crowd, “We don’t want lower bread prices, we don’t want higher bread prices, we don’t want unchanged bread prices — we want National Socialist bread prices!” This line is best understood as a frank boast that policy details mattered little to them; what mattered was who ruled. Trump’s governing style echoed this conviction. He is the only president in American history to spend his first term boasting that he won the election in the first place. The only outcome that counted was owning the libs.
Biden has categorically different objectives. He does not want, or need, to own anybody. The experiences of Bill Clinton and Obama show that any high-profile fight over a Democratic president’s agenda, however substantively moderate it may be, will be experienced by Republicans as a terrifying plot to snuff out the last flicker of freedom in America.
And to the extent that he activated national partisan conflict, Biden would put his congressional allies on their back feet. The median House seat leans 4 percentage points more Republican than the overall electorate, the median Senate seat 6.6 percentage points. Emphasizing the importance of legislative fights is therefore to the Democrats’ disadvantage. The more emotional intensity is attached to an issue, the more opinion about that issue tends to line up with partisan sentiment. And since Democrats have to hold Republican-leaning territory in order to command a majority in Congress (while the reverse is not true), polarization forces the pivotal Democratic votes to choose between their constituents and their party.
Biden’s answer to this conundrum is to avoid splashy public fights that elevate his agenda into Kulturkampf. His proposals may be transformational, but they won’t feel transformational to Republicans as long as Biden isn’t on their television every hour talking about what a big deal they are.
Obviously, Biden can’t stop Republicans from trying to rile up their constituents. But Republicans and their affiliated media organs have decided to devote more of their attention to decisions made by Major League Baseball, the estate of Theodor Geisel, and the makers of Mr. Potato Head than to anything being done by the federal government. One poll last month found Republicans had heard more about Dr. Seuss than the nearly $2 trillion spending bill Democrats had signed into law.
In 1920, Warren G. Harding campaigned for president on a promise to end the feverish moral crusades that had defined public life under his predecessor (including wars to save democracy and end a deadly pandemic). His promise to restore “normalcy” has been attached ever since in the public mind with a downward ratcheting of government’s role. Normalcy means inactivity, retreat, the status quo.
America in the wake of Trump’s war on democracy and the second-worst pandemic in a century also yearns for normalcy. But Biden defined normalcy in a different way. In his Inaugural Address, he called on his country to “stop the shouting and lower the temperature,” even while proposing dramatic policies to redress long-standing ills. “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” he said. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
A cynic may suspect that the president’s idealistic vision of a mellow public sphere, in which everybody chills out while he signs a series of historic 13-figure spending bills, contains more than a dollop of self-interest. That is an awfully jaded assumption to make about Saintly Joe Biden. But that suspicion wouldn’t be completely wrong. In a way, it’s the point.