The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The presidency has changed. Biden needs to adapt.

President Biden speaks as he tours a neighborhood affected by flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida in September 2021 in Queens. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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I wrote last week that Joe Biden’s approach to the presidency is outdated and ineffective. Now, I will offer an alternative path.

American presidents were once the leader of the whole country. Congress used to pass legislation on major issues across party lines. The federal judiciary used to be somewhat balanced in its rulings. Policies and budgets are by far the most important tool available to any politician. And in the old political world, the one where Biden spent most of his career, a president had a lot of power to direct the country through his policies and budgets — particularly one whose party controlled both houses of Congress.

We are so, so far from that old world.

Today, Republicans and conservative Democrats are blocking Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill, GOP judges are stopping his major executive actions, and governors in red states are blunting any initiatives that haven’t already been stopped by Congress or the judiciary. Biden can still get some things done in traditional ways: He can, for example, appoint liberal judges, reach bipartisan agreements on incremental legislation, use the executive branch to advance some small-bore initiatives and help limit the spread of the coronavirus. Perhaps some version of the Build Back Better Act will eventually pass.

But a lot of the opportunities for a president to push forward his agenda are increasingly out of reach.

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That said, I think the president has three big opportunities before him — and if he takes all three, he can reinvigorate his presidency.

First, Biden should take as many executive actions as he can. David Roberts, author of a newsletter on clean energy and politics called Volts, argued before Biden even took office that the president should “run a blitz.” “He should launch so many simultaneous reforms that there’s no time for right-wing media to make up lies about all of them or for the Supreme Court to hear them all,” Roberts wrote for Vox. It’s time for the blitz.

The American Prospect has a list of dozens of possible executive actions that Biden hasn’t taken so far. Some of these moves, such as taking steps that effectively legalize marijuana, would likely be both substantively important and politically popular. Yes, some of them will be struck down by GOP-appointed judges. But it’s not likely that all of them will. Remember that the Supreme Court upheld Biden’s vaccination mandate for health-care workers at facilities receiving federal funds, even as it struck down a broader one for workers across industries.

Second, Biden should use his informal power aggressively. We live in a celebrity-driven media age in which everyone is constantly checking their phones and consuming new information. As president of the United States, Biden is a mega-celebrity who controls the biggest, most prestigious microphone in the world.

Biden has a great opportunity to articulate a compelling vision for 2022 America and push the country toward it. He can visit the headquarters of companies that pay their blue-collar workers a decent wage and offer parental and sick leave, encourage Americans to purchase products from these companies and urge other businesses to emulate them. He can implore others to adopt and support initiatives that are meaningfully improving Americans’ lives right now, such as the privately funded universal basic income program happening in the Atlanta area or the historically Black colleges that are forgiving the loans of some students.

He won’t be showing up with much new money or legislation — the traditional politicians’ tools. But Biden can provide rhetorical support to the kinds of changes that he wants to see in the United States. In turn, more people will hear about initiatives and projects that Biden talks about, and Democrats in particular are likely to donate and otherwise support causes blessed by the president.

One caveat: Biden cannot be his usual, “rah-rah, everything is great, let’s all come together” self in taking this approach. The media is more likely to cover conflict, and unfortunately, more Americans are more likely to tune in if there is tension. So Biden should seek out righteous fights. He should hold events with election administrators and school board members who have been threatened by Trumpian crazies for just doing their jobs. He should make an appearance with the Black authors who have had their books banned by state-level Republicans.

In particular, as Jeff Hauser and Max Moran of the Center for Economic and Policy Research argued recently in the journal Democracy, Biden should be “fighting against big corporate malefactors on behalf of the average American.” Biden should be constantly looking to shame companies into better behavior and to promote the work his administration is already doing to help workers and fight monopoly power.

Third, Biden should leverage his popularity and influence in blue America. In our hyper-polarized age, it’s hard for the president to get anyone from the other party to support him — but he remains popular among those who did vote for him. In many ways, Biden is the president of only blue America, but that’s more than half of American adults, 70 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product, the vast majority of its big cities, its most populous state (California) and virtually the entire industries of education, entertainment, Big Tech and philanthropy.

There are plenty of blue cities and states and businesses in those states that have lackluster sick-leave and parental-leave programs and limited child-care and prekindergarten options. So Biden and his team should concentrate on getting key planks of his agenda adopted at the city and state levels wherever they can. If Biden wants to take on problems such as Internet misinformation, gun violence and college affordability, he can have enormous influence just meeting with big-city mayors, university administrators and tech industry figures, almost all of whom likely support him.

I would love to see Biden spending less time talking to Republican senators and more time with people such as MacKenzie Scott, Melinda Gates, Ford Foundation head Darren Walker, LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey and others with money and influence who are likely to embrace causes that Biden points them toward. And he could be lifting up the work of innovative leaders including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who are taking on major problems such as racial inequality at the city level.

There is a precedent for the approach I’m describing: the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Obama was in a similar situation to Biden’s: He faced a Congress where his agenda was stalled, and GOP-appointed judges and governors in red states trying to blunt his every move. Those were not two years where Obama shaped the United States much through federal dollars or policy.

But he still articulated big ideas, such as free community college, and helped them gain traction in blue areas. He embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, reassuring White Democrats who were at first wary of it. He showed up for his supporters, most notably in his moving speech in 2015 in Charleston, S.C., after a white supremacist killed nine Black people at a church. He took on righteous conflicts. When several Republican presidential candidates were touting bigoted proposals to limit refugees from majority-Muslim countries from coming to the United States, Obama forcefully attacked them. And although he couldn’t get much of his agenda through Congress, Trump, too, also was fairly effective in using executive power, his megaphone and his influence in red states to push his goals.

Following this road map won’t necessarily save Biden’s presidency electorally. I’m not sure how he can boost his poll numbers or prevent Republicans from winning in 2022, because electoral outcomes are both complicated but also somewhat structural. (The party that doesn’t control the presidency pretty much always wins the midterms.) I want Biden to save his presidency for the good of the country, in particular for the people who voted for him. He should stand with them, defending their rights and doing whatever he can to improve their lives, instead of wasting more months courting Republicans, conservative Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and voters who are never going to support him.

But it’s worth noting that Obama got more popular as he took this approach — and that he left office with an approval rating close to 60 percent. Some of the times I was most proud to have voted for Obama were in those final two years.

Joe Biden probably can’t have the presidency of his dreams. But he can still have a presidency that helps a lot of Americans with their dreams.