The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Biden, Americans wanted a presidential president. They’re still waiting.

President Biden, seen here Friday, is exiting his first year in office. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

A consensus is rapidly forming that President Biden is adrift — at best. This column (spoiler alert) joins in that consensus. The good news for Biden is that very often, when political observers reach consensus, we are soon proved wrong. Remember when insiders said Donald Trump would never be elected?

Nevertheless, a year into his presidency, Biden is too small for the office. Elected by the largest turnout in U.S. history and by voters who thought he would restore mature, measured leadership to the White House, he has instead dwindled in the job. Presidents and their running mates are the only people elected by the entire country. That gives them the duty, and the opportunity, to rise above the Washington fray — yet Biden is being whipsawed by it. A successful president explains the present, paints the future and boosts confidence in a path from here to there. Biden is doing none of that.

Two recent events were especially discouraging to those who want a presidential president. On Dec. 27, as the omicron wave of the covid-19 pandemic battered Americans’ confidence, Biden essentially threw in the towel. “There is no federal solution,” he said. And: “I rely on my medical team. I get a recommendation, I follow it.” To governors seeking assistance: If you need something, say something.”

Stylistically, those remarks were arguably less clownish than the buck-passing nonsense from Biden’s predecessor. Substantively, though, it was more of the same: Don’t look at me — I just work here.

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Nearly two years into a pandemic, it’s pathetic for Biden to dump the mess onto the nation’s governors, risible to imply that the country is short on test kits and underinvested in emerging covid therapies because officials in Bismarck, N.D., and Boise, Idaho, and Baton Rouge didn’t “say something.” As for Biden’s medical team, its advice remains as reactive and befuddled as ever.

Mike Pence: Jan. 6 was a power grab. So is busting the filibuster to nationalize elections.

The United States, and the world, never expected a covid miracle. But we have yearned for a leader — in vain.

Then Biden went to Georgia to talk about voting rights and election security. The core of his message, believe it or not, was that future elections will be rigged and stolen. What could possess him to think that Americans need less confidence in elections?

A leader explaining the present would have told the country, in precise detail, how well our elections officials performed in 2020 despite extremely difficult conditions: a monster turnout amid a pandemic. In painting the future, Biden could have argued point by point for his party’s belief that the right to vote necessarily includes the right to vote by mail, to receive unsolicited absentee ballots, to enjoy refreshments while waiting in line and so on.

Instead, Biden gave a speech that even his friendly fellow Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) said “perhaps ... went a little too far” in branding his opponents as Jim Crow racists and fanning the dystopian nonsense that elections can’t be trusted.

“The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them,” Biden said. “Simple as that. The facts won’t matter; your vote won’t matter. They’ll just decide what they want and then do it.” Sounds like the Sore Loser of Mar-a-Lago. But no: That’s Biden, the guy who pledged to lower the temperature and raise the level of debate.

Marc A. Thiessen: A flailing Biden sold his ‘whole soul’ in political desperation

One hungers for a worldview, a theory of government, some intellectual content from the president. But Biden makes no sense. One day, it suits him to say that a pandemic must be solved at the state level. Another day, to say that fair elections can be ensured only by federal intervention. Governors are the front line against disease and death but mortal enemies of honest voting. Trust them with your lives, America, but not with your ballots.

The first year or so is often the worst for a president. The job requires a lot of on-the-job learning, even for an old Washington hand. Ten months into Abraham Lincoln’s first term, his Cabinet was losing confidence in him and his hope was running out. Harry S. Truman, known for his decisiveness in 1945, fumbled his way through 1946. John F. Kennedy’s first year was a disaster, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to his first superpower summit.

Biden can still find his way, but only if he looks in the right place. And that’s the deal he made with voters. He promised to take the pandemic seriously, unlike his predecessor. He promised to deal with opponents respectfully, unlike his predecessor. He promised to speak to the public honestly, unlike his predecessor. The president should retrace his steps to that starting point and measure each day by those commitments — not by polls, not by tempestuous Twitter, not by transient hopes for some fleeting political advantage. And certainly not by the chorus of the commentariat.