The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden can’t blame his staff for his flailing presidency

President Biden at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on June 1. (Kevin Dietsh/Getty Images)
4 min

President Biden is reportedly upset at his staff for his administration’s low public standing. He should look in the mirror instead.

Political consultants have a saying that a campaign always reflects the candidate. If the person at the top is undisciplined, such as former president Donald Trump, then the campaign will be, too. If that person is reclusive and secretive, like Hillary Clinton, or obsesses over political details and maneuvering, like her husband Bill, then the campaigns will inevitably reflect those tendencies. As 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis said in another context, the fish rots from the head first.

So if Biden is upset that his staff doesn’t provide him with a clear message, might that be because he himself doesn’t have one? After all, he has waffled and wavered on a host of issues throughout his career. He’s been pro-life and pro-choice on abortion. In 1981, he voted for the sort of tax cuts he now decries. Every politician who has been around as long as Biden will have changed their minds on something, but Biden’s protean ability to magically recast himself in the image of the Democratic Party’s current consensus is stunning. And when your primary political talent is changing your views to fit the moment, it’s hard — perhaps impossible — to craft a consistent message.

Nor can Biden complain about his staff’s tendency to walk back his off-the-cuff comments on policy. Biden’s tendency to spout off on issues with little thought is the stuff of D.C. legend. It’s why he’s long been known as a walking gaffe machine, as he himself once acknowledged. That might be cute when the gaffes don’t matter, but it’s dangerous when every word he utters can have global consequences. So if Biden blurts out that he thinks Vladimir Putin should not remain in power, you’re darn right his staff will jump into action to say he didn’t mean what he said. The alternative is too chilling to contemplate.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

If Biden really doesn’t want his staff to do that, he should do what any competent chief executive does when undermined: fire the offending personnel. He doesn’t do that, of course, which means he either knows he needs walking back, or he doesn’t have the guts to fire people. Neither trait is commendable in a chief executive.

Biden himself is also to blame for his inability to craft notable speeches and persuade people to adopt his point of view. He’s legendarily long-winded, but how many people can cite one memorable line from a speech he’s given in his 50 years of public life? Arguably one of his most enduring remarks — that he was the first in his family to go to university — was plagiarized from British Labour leader Neil Kinnock, a disclosure that forced Biden out of the 1988 Democratic presidential race.

Biden also demonstrated his failure to excite people in the 2008 presidential contest, when he dropped out after receiving just 1 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. His 2020 campaign was headed for oblivion after a disastrous fifth-place showing in the New Hampshire primary until the party establishment rallied around him in a last-ditch bid to defeat the Vermont socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. Staff can do only so much with the material they are given.

Biden surely has good intentions, and he has a commendable ability to build deep loyalty among longtime staff. But neither quality is sufficient to effectively wield presidential authority. The person in the Oval Office must be capable of decisive action. He or she must be skilled at persuading people in small and large settings, establishing and keeping to a course through difficult times and ruthlessly promoting staff who can help him and dismissing those who cannot. If the top dog doesn’t have the goods, an all-star team of consultants cannot keep the ship afloat.

Unsuccessful presidents uniformly lack one or more of these qualities. Jimmy Carter alienated potential congressional allies, while George H.W. Bush was notably inarticulate when not mouthing the words of speechwriter Peggy Noonan. George W. Bush stuck with poor subordinates for too long in Iraq, while Trump alienated half the country and couldn’t find or keep enough talented staff to effectively manage the White House.

Biden’s shortcomings thus far look all too familiar. He has reason to be unhappy with his political standing. The fault, however, lies not in the stars, but in himself.