Perhaps Cornyn was only trolling, and he doesn’t actually miss the days when Trump would tweet something horrifying and he and his colleagues would have to pretend that they were only vaguely aware that the president was on Twitter and certainly hadn’t seen the tweet in question.
What’s most notable is the idea that if the president isn’t spending all his time on the performative part of his job, he must not really be “in charge.”
Yes, just as he promised, Biden has not desperately sought to seize every shred of our attention every moment of every day. And it’s true that he hasn’t done all many interviews since becoming president. His Twitter feed is indeed rather dull.
So have we lost anything because of that? Are we expecting the right things from the president?
Consider the claim that Biden is too “scripted” in his public comments. The truth is that every president says a lot of scripted things — the White House has an entire speechwriting office where wordsmiths craft not only big speeches but also mundane day-to-day remarks, whether they are a welcome for the Finnish ambassador or a proclamation acknowledging National Candied Yam Day.
Cornyn’s implied complaint is that there’s too much of that and not enough off-the-cuff riffing from Biden. But when you say the president is too “scripted,” you’re critiquing how he acts as a performer. You’re saying that you’d prefer that performance to be looser, more improvisational, more interestingly unpredictable — more jazz, less classical.
To what end, though? It can’t be so that we can all understand his administration’s policies better. If the president delivers prepared remarks on his new infrastructure plan for 15 minutes and then banters with reporters about it for another 15, chances are that the first half will be more precise and informative.
What about “accountability”? Shouldn’t he have to answer tough questions? Absolutely. And sometimes that happens in impromptu back-and-forth with reporters or in longer interviews, but not always. In fact, the more skilled a president is at performance, the better he can handle tough questioning without deviating from his preferred message.
And that’s only one form of accountability. For instance, we all have an interest in scrutinizing the implementation of the American Rescue Plan — whether the money is getting to those who need it, if waste and fraud are being avoided, and so on. There are different ways to learn about that; quizzing the president is one way, but we’ll also need dogged, time-consuming reporting.
Yet it’s often the tenor of the president’s interactions with reporters that convinces people he’s being held accountable: If they’re questioning him aggressively, even with apparent hostility, it looks like accountability, even if it often doesn’t get us very far.
Cornyn (and plenty of other Republicans) would like us to believe that because Biden is not always the most compelling public presence, he isn’t “in charge” of the substantive part of his job. Which, when you think about it, is ridiculous. Are we supposed to conclude that if Biden gives a meandering answer to a reporter’s question, it means White House staff are ignoring his instructions and decisions while some nefarious Rasputin is pulling his strings?
The reporters themselves certainly prefer a president who is more accessible, as Trump was; he was happy to talk to them (or yell at them) on nearly a daily basis. Those interactions were entertaining, and often produced stories when Trump said something controversial or offensive. Which made the reporters’ jobs easier, but didn’t necessarily make the public more informed.
But we were certainly more entertained. And that’s what has truly changed this year: You may like Biden more than Trump, but you can’t say he’s more entertaining. Trump was a showman who approached his presidency like a four-season run on reality TV. No goal was more important to him than keeping the audience tuned in, and he found a variety of means to do it.
That made for lots of attention-grabbing stories, as did the relentless leaking from Trump staffers desperate to tell reporters that somebody else was to blame for the chaos and incompetence of his White House. Biden and his staff just don't make as much news.
To be clear, it would be better if Biden did more interviews and spoke to reporters more often. Presidents should be willing to answer questions on a regular basis. And there are times when the public part of the president’s job is as critical as any other — when, for instance, there has been a national tragedy and the country looks to him to draw us together and help make sense of events.
But we should never forget that most of the time, being a good public performer is not the same as excelling at governance. If Trump taught us anything, it’s that you can put on a captivating show and still be a disaster of a president. If Biden turns out to be the opposite on both counts, we should be thankful.