The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time for Biden to execute a hard reset on his presidency

President Biden listens to a questions during a news conference at the White House on Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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At Year One, it must be deeply frustrating for President Biden to take stock of his underappreciated successes. His economic performance is being trashed after the creation of 6 million jobs. His economic stewardship is being questioned in a country with 3.9 percent unemployment. His pandemic response is being broadly criticized even though more than 75 percent of American adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine (compared with fewer than 20 percent 10 months ago).

These claims are Biden administration talking points. They have the added virtue of being true. Yet the most obvious and emotionally satisfying presidential response — taking Americans by their lapels and shaking them until they concede the glorious excellence of his achievements — is generally bad communications strategy.

Not a small portion of Biden’s recent press availability was dedicated to self-vindication. “I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen,” he insisted. But when a president gains a negative public impression through a series of perceived failures, the impression is not uncreated by addressing each charge in turn.

American voters often make distinctions broader than policy or ideology. Is the president strong or weak? On our cultural side or not? Following the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, the rise in murder rates, the return of inflation, and a bundle of (often unfair) educational and cultural complaints, Biden has developed a reputation for weakness. And the process of appeasing his party’s radical left has led to a series of certain legislative defeats, which have demonstrated not Biden’s purity but his impotence.

At a moment such as this, the temptation is to relitigate — but the task is to relaunch. Deliverance from this type of public judgment requires a circuit breaker. The president needs to show he has heard public criticism and is reacting to it. This might take the form of a new initiative or a staff shake-up. But it needs to be more than symbolic. It must involve a significantly new way of doing business.

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The idea of a staff shake-up in Biden world is difficult for an outsider to imagine. One gets the feeling that in Chief of Staff Ron Klain, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden has found his all-star team. But this creates some dangers of its own. A president needs loyal staffers. He also needs peers in high positions who are willing to dispute him as equals. The Biden team seems short on the latter. An administration reset might be wise to address this need.

Any Biden administration retooling should include an upbeat, forward-looking version of his agenda. But in presidential communication, the choice between positive and negative is usually a false one. Biden’s responsible management of the nation’s affairs should be regularly contrasted with the House Republican parade of insanity. GOP control would necessarily involve the further elevation of people such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) as spokespeople and power brokers within their party. The election of now-Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker would hardly matter. Religious bigotry, conspiracy thinking and the ready embrace of political violence would be the public agenda of the House GOP.

Those helping with the Biden relaunch (if it comes) will spend significant time considering what settings fit their boss best. For Biden, the determination is not complicated. Both of his political strengths — his empathy and his skill at negotiations — are most evident in small groups. Revealing Biden at his best requires the amplification of his intimacy.

In his press availability, Biden admitted that his Build Back Better agenda would pass only in smaller, more digestible parts. That is realism. But Biden and his staff should not lose sight of the fact that a presidential agenda can include other initiatives that allow for great and lasting good. In the policy process leading up to the 2003 State of the Union, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was assembled. Rather than fitting a political need, it involved a moral imperative.

Those involved in shaping Biden’s agenda have a similar opportunity to push for transformative ideas that don’t fit immediate political needs. Someone should be fighting internally to pursue a revision of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which invites confusion and anarchic mischief. Someone should be pushing for a more ambitious stage in the international fight against covid, in which America would convene a global pledging conference and lead a push to get shots into arms in the developing world. Someone should be advocating for the repair and reform of the United States’ broken asylum system.

At some point, arresting a downward spiral must involve a break with the past. This is one of the hardest maneuvers in politics because it involves a modicum of humility.

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