Turning down the volume: the radical quietness of Joe Biden

US Politics: President’s bold stratagem of unavailability has created a precious, calmer atmosphere

Joe Biden  will grant his first official press conference on Thursday since assuming the US presidency in January. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Joe Biden will grant his first official press conference on Thursday since assuming the US presidency in January. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

 

If Americans can hang on for a few months, the unmediated thoughts of former president Donald Trump will be theirs to savour again. Florida’s grandest retiree is to build a social media platform to replace the ones that barred him for all-too-successful rabble-rousing in January.

If the aim here is to keep the Trump name in circulation, it can work. If the hope is to “redefine the game”, to quote his adviser, he has been beaten to it. Trump’s successor is the one who is overturning the conventions of political communication. And he is doing it through the opposite of round-the-clock verbosity.

On Thursday, Joe Biden will grant his first official press conference since assuming the presidency in January. Those who track these things say that no holder of the office over the past century has kept the fourth estate waiting as long. Nor has he yet made time to address a joint session of the 117th Congress. Even if lockdown protocols are an excuse of sorts, the president is no less terse in the digital arena. When it comes to tweets, he is a one-a-day man, more or less, and sublimely tedious. (“It’s time to treat in-person learning like the essential service that it is”.)

As a journalist, I have to question the accountability of a leader who has produced a tempest of executive orders, presidential memoranda, proclamations and notices.

As a US resident I cherish the decline of political noise in a country that suffers from a blaring excess of the stuff. In a sense, Biden has fulfilled the pledge of an entirely different candidate for the White House. “If you elect me president,” said the Colorado senator Michael Bennett in 2019, “I promise you won’t have to think about me for two weeks at a time.” Such a meek-sounding vision. Such a difficult one to achieve.

In both senses of the word, the volume of US politics seemed to go up in the 1990s. Fox News and MSNBC were formed to vie with CNN for cable viewers in a deregulated market. The president of the day, Bill Clinton, conceived of government as a “permanent campaign”.

Unending diaries

As if in tribute, two of his successors have served as both chorus and lead actor in the American drama, narrating their own doings. Never a natural administrator, Barack Obama, now on his third memoir, was in his element at the writing desk or lectern. Count his tweets, and Trump might be the president with the most acute case of graphomania since John Quincy Adams and his unending diaries.

It is not his policies that mark Biden out as transformative, then. Yes, he signed a huge fiscal relief bill, but so did Trump, twice. In foreign affairs, where a president has imperial latitude, the continuities catch the eye, not the ruptures. US re-entry to the Iran nuclear pact is more aspirational than imminent. The confrontation with China still encompasses moral scolding and balance-of-power games in the “Indo-Pacific”.

It is true enough that Biden wants to liberalise immigration and naturalisation laws, but it is not yet clear how much of this vision will survive Congress, or the present crisis at the Mexico border. As a new president, his grace period with the electorate is probably ending there.

No, much the sharper change is his reticence. If this seems a superficial gain, consider that, better pandemic-management aside, the US needed nothing more direly in 2021 than a cooling of its indignant politics. One way of going about this is to make the sonorous and futile appeals to unity that almost all presidencies start with. Biden, a sentimentalist about the essential oneness of America, was not above that.

But he has also tried the bolder stratagem of unavailability. A less visible president is a less contentious one: a head of state, not government. Biden has given voters the time and space to busy themselves with other things. Republicans have not just a moving but an almost spectral target to hit.

A quietly radical president? There is a case. But he is also radically quiet: his elusiveness, not his programme, is the most dramatic break from the recent past.

Cynics will put it down to the self-preservation of a visibly aged man. (Remote diagnosis of a leader’s mental state, that unlovely feature of the Trump years, turns out to be cross-partisan.) But the calmer atmosphere is precious, whatever its source.

US politics is, if not ear-splitting, then a source of constant low-level stress, like construction work going on five doors down. It has frazzled the public’s nerves and tempers for a generation at least. I doubt that Biden will go down as the nation-changer of current hype. If he is remembered as a breather for Americans, that is scarcely less of a feat. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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