The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s in a rut. Here’s the way out.

President Biden listens as reporters ask questions in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 18. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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Joe Klein is the author of seven books, including “Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam.”

When Joe Biden served as vice president, he was frustrated at times by Barack Obama’s reluctance to engage in the slippery arts of political lubrication — the backslapping, the stroking, the casual insincerity, the flattery. Obama thought that sort of stuff was phony, that politicians would see right through it. And, of course, he was right — but, as Biden would point out, the pols in Congress loved it anyway.

They wanted to be invited down to the White House for a drink or a movie, to take home those M&Ms with the presidential seal. This was Biden’s most valuable service as vice president. He was an inside guy; he knew how to deal with the John Boehners and Joe Manchins of the world.

Now, it is no small irony that as Biden stumbles through this awkward patch as president, he needs someone to provide the exact opposite service he gave Obama: He needs an outside guy (or, of course, woman), who can remind him how to use the bully pulpit.

He has built, in the West Wing and in his Cabinet, the world’s most competent Senate staff. It is a team without stars or czars — there is no Colin Powell or Madeleine Albright among them, no high-profile Richard B. Cheney or Al Gore to fire back at Republican distortions, no David Petraeus or Norman Schwarzkopf to patrol the Mexican border. There has been no shakedown cruise, no reshuffling of staff, no David Gergen or Leon Panetta to school the president in how to be an executive.

During the campaign, Biden was able to remind us that we’re a great and optimistic country, with a spirit larger than any piece of legislation. But he has been trapped in the small-room myopia of the congressional meat grinder ever since. “We’re always bringing a policy paper to a knife fight,” says Tim Kraft, the old Jimmy Carter hand.

Many Democrats actually believe that if only the infrastructure bill or the Build Back Better cornucopia had passed a month ago, the 2021 elections might have gone differently. That’s a stretch. Virginia and New Jersey — and the New York mayoralty, and the “fund the police” vote in Minneapolis — were about issues that have only tangential legislative implications. They were about culture — about race and education and crime and wokeness. These are areas where only a president can set the national tone, and there is a need for Biden to speak out clearly on them.

He might start with a prime-time speech that makes a bright-line distinction: that the teaching of Black history, especially the brutal legacies of slavery, is absolutely essential in our country now, but that critical race theory is to be deplored as a simplistic attempt to filter all American history through a racial lens.

He might also remind his own party that our schools should be run for the benefit of students, not teachers and their unions, and that they should have reopened as soon as the coronavirus vaccines became available, and perhaps kept open through the summer to make up for lost time. That might have helped things in Fairfax County.

There are other issues — close-to-the-bone issues — where Biden needs to lead. What, for example, is his position on immigration? The national mood is nativist, and the border needs to be secured, but all those “help wanted” signs cry out for a larger workforce. Does he have a proposal?

Another: How should Americans think about China now? We need China’s goods; China needs our markets. But it is acting like a bully toward its neighbors — and its own people. How do we respond to that?

One of the most important presidential jobs is to teach. Franklin D. Roosevelt started with fireside chats before he proposed massive legislation. FDR would have actually enjoyed crafting a speech to explain, in simple language, the nation’s current supply chain dilemma — just as he implored my parents’ generation to go out and buy maps so they could follow the progress of our troops overseas in World War II.

A president has to paint big pictures and draw fine lines. “We don’t do that,” Ronald Reagan would say when his chief of staff, James A. Baker III, on occasion tried to sell him on an idea that wasn’t, well, Reaganesque. The 40th president had little interest in legislative details but carried a grand vision of what his administration should be all about.

So, what is Bidenesque? The success of Biden’s presidency might rest on his ability to answer that question.

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