intelligencer chats

Can Biden’s Low-Key Strategy Work Forever?

What he does in the shadows. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Less voluble, less gaffe-prone, more focused: In many ways, President Biden has been a very different political figure than the Joe Biden America has been familiar with for decades. I spoke with national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about Biden’s so-far successful communications strategy, and whether it can last.

Ben: Our colleague Jonathan Chait wrote this of Joe Biden recently:

“Biden’s advantage is that he’s not just nice; he’s also tedious. He is relentlessly enacting an ambitious domestic agenda … 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.”

This is true. It’s also true that, right now, many Republicans don’t even seem interested in going after Biden, or his policies. Instead, they’re focused on shoehorning whatever grievances they have into the rubric of “cancel culture” and “critical race theory,” and all but ignoring the president and what he’s doing. So Biden gets to be low-key with a fraction of the pushback Barack Obama got. (Being an old white guy surely helps.) How long do you expect this dynamic to continue? Is it possible that it’ll just be this way for the next year or even indefinitely?

Gabriel: Maybe! But one of the reasons this is happening right now is that Biden’s main political priorities are all things that Republicans know they really can’t stop, except on the margins. That was true for his initial COVID-relief bill, which passed on party lines in the Senate, and it’s probably true for at least big parts of his infrastructure proposals, which should also be able to pass like that. The proposals are also pretty popular, so clearly D.C. Republicans see no upside in fighting too hard on this stuff — they know they’ll lose substantively, and potentially in the court of public opinion. As I wrote after Biden’s first address to Congress, though, the question is what’s next: He’s got a lot of ambitious plans that would require some Republican cooperation to pass, which also means he likely has to reckon with GOP obstruction and criticism in a different way. And that will almost certainly become more of a front-burner matter as far as the press and national attention is concerned. (In other words: Getting 50 Democrats to agree on an infrastructure package is one thing, getting 50 Democrats and ten Republicans to agree on an immigration overhaul, or new gun laws — let alone a voting-rights package — is something else entirely.)

The other thing is: The world often intervenes! COVID has obviously been an overwhelming crisis here, but who’s to say that something else, or even something COVID-related, won’t soon happen that will force Biden back into the spotlight? Nothing. It’s the presidency. Shit happens!

Ben: Yes, so far the Biden team has hewed pretty closely to the “do popular stuff” mantra, and it seems to be working out for them. Do you get the sense that on, say, immigration or voting rights — issues that, as you said, will be much harder to push through Congress — the administration will shy away from taking on big fights that it knows it probably can’t win? And in the process, might Team Biden stir a bit more resentment among progressives, who so far have been pretty happy with what they’ve seen?

Gabriel: I think it’s far too early to say what’ll happen on that front. Certainly they’ve talked a big game so far, but they’re also very conscious of trying to do realistic things. I’m not sure what it would look like if they studied what it would mean to pursue a major immigration push, say, and then determined it’d be impossible to get the votes, or get close to getting the votes. We just don’t know what this White House’s style will be on that yet, but we’ll probably find out soon: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for one, has suggested he wants the voting-rights package to get real consideration by this summer. So that might be the big fight that changes the current status quo. One thing that’s hanging over a lot of this is the reality that both the White House and everyone on Capitol Hill know Democrats stand a good chance of losing their hold on the House in 2022, and the Senate could go either way. So there may be a closing window here, and potentially also a Supreme Court seat to fill if Stephen Breyer retires.

Ben: One thing that’s notable about Biden himself is how restrained and focused he has been in public of late. His appearances so far — and this goes back to the latter stages of the presidential campaign, amid the pandemic — are really at odds with his longtime reputation as a gaffe-prone, undisciplined figure. I’m wondering to what extent you think Biden has changed in some fundamental way, and to what extent his style is the product of some great behind-the-scenes effort on his and his team’s part to avoid the kind of mistakes he’s made before.

Gabriel: My sense is it’s a bit of both — he saw what the moment required of him and started talking less. But his public appearances are also scheduled to be quick, occasional speeches now, not occasions for rambling. Part of this is also that it’s all relative. Was he long-winded and gaffe-prone? Sure. But that was always absolutely nothing compared to whatever Trump was. So when Biden does get slightly off topic in public, it comes across as extremely mild now, especially to a traumatized political press that’s still recovering.

But of course it’s a strategy. I don’t think anyone doubts that in Biden’s ideal world, he’d be out there constantly — not just in the Rose Garden, but in diners with real people, and, crucially, on Air Force One, with other world leaders. That’s the stuff he really loves, and he just hasn’t done it.

I’m reminded of Biden’s finest moment in the 2008 election’s primary debates. Brian Williams asked him, in his own rambling 20-second question about Biden’s “uncontrolled verbosity,” “Can you reassure voters that you would have the discipline you would need on the world’s stage, Senator?” Biden just said, “Yes.” Williams looked chastened, and replied, “Thank you, Senator Biden,” as the crowd laughed.

As Chris Coons, one of Biden’s best allies in D.C., told me last year, in a quote I’ve repeated a few times since, “Joe Biden is someone who has shown a willingness, when history compels it, to change.”

Ben: One thing that’s been curiously missing from this White House, compared with others (and not just Trump’s) is that we’ve barely seen any stories about White House staff drama — or, really, any stories about White House staff at all. It can feel like the executive branch is almost invisible. What’s going on?

Gabriel: There have been some stories, of course, but I think this can be largely attributed to an underappreciated dynamic: Almost everyone senior in this White House has been there before, and that hasn’t been true of a new administration in ages. Trump’s was full of neophytes, if that’s what you want to call them. Obama had some old hands, but he was also surrounded by younger staffers who came up through his campaign rather than the Clinton-driven Democratic Washington that preceded him. Bush had some holdovers from his father’s administration, but also a lot of newcomers from Texas. Clinton stacked his administration, at least at the start, with lots of folks who weren’t just new to the White House, but were new to D.C., period. As for Biden? Well, the top rungs of his White House are filled with people who’ve served in one or two previous White Houses, and in many cases people who’ve been at Biden’s side for literally decades. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing on its own, but it’s undoubtedly one reason the stories about dysfunction and such are at far lower levels than usual these days.

Ben: Surely some people who have been in Washington a long time are also dysfunctional!

Gabriel: And there may in fact be a lot of dysfunction! But it’s rare to reach a professional level like that in D.C. specifically without some aptitude for minimizing the public component of said dysfunction.

Can Biden’s Low-Key Strategy Work Forever?