Among the many criticisms President Biden has had to grapple with, this one may be the most frustrating to him: Here he has been president for nearly two years, and Donald Trump remains the dominant figure in our public life.
The surest sign that the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago was not part of some fiendish political plan? The last thing the White House wanted was an event that would relegate Biden’s victories — on climate, health care, tech policy, prescription drug prices, taxes and major new assistance for veterans — to second or third place in the news cycle.
If Attorney General Merrick Garland had been operating in Biden’s immediate partisan interests, he would surely have delayed the quest to bring top secret documents back under government control by a week or two.
Yet maybe, just maybe, the stark contrast between the two men we have just witnessed — in who they are, in their priorities, in the way they behave — will be a reset moment.
Whatever else they were doing, the voters who put Biden into the presidency in 2020 were seeking something closer to a functional, normal democracy. This was the opposite of what we had when Trump rampaged around the White House, obsessed only with himself, his image and the attention-grabbing havoc he could wreak.
That normality means Biden does not grab the headlines, particularly on cable news and social media, the way Trump still can. No one who runs for president lacks ego, but Biden is a fundamentally decent man who has spent his life thinking about what legislation he could pass, which problems he might start solving, and how he could tilt the economic playing field a bit more toward the kinds of people he grew up with in Scranton, Pa., and Delaware.
And this is the month Biden finally came into his own.
There should be no pretending that the legislative achievements that just surged through Congress matched the highest hopes the president aroused a year ago when all the talk (I was part of it) was of another New Deal. But the accomplishments were solid and important, particularly the giant step toward dealing with the climate crisis.
Only history and future elections can decide the matter, but Biden may go down as achieving something like Ronald Reagan did, but in reverse. His time in office is altering the nation’s assumptions about government and its role in our economic life.
This process began long before his election, after the financial collapse of 2008 underscored the limits of deregulation. But the two major bipartisan bills Biden signed — for infrastructure and for investments in semiconductors, science and technology — brought home how even many Republicans now acknowledge that large-scale federal investments are required to make a market economy work and that government can push it in useful directions.
Biden didn’t do this alone, and the past month was also when Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) came into his own as a negotiator, facilitator and dealmaker. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), presiding over one of the narrowest partisan majorities in history, showed yet again why she is the most consequential House leader of the modern era.
Notice something here: Whether you support everything Biden, Schumer and Pelosi did or not, it was all about workaday government as we understood it before Trump brought his destructive psychosis to the center of our politics.
If there were dramas, they were about substantive disagreements between center and left over what should be in a bill, how fast change should happen, which problems took priority. It was a debate over what democratic government should be doing for citizens, not a spectacle orchestrated by one terribly needy man.
Predictions about Trump’s future are risky, and mine have never been particularly good. But at the risk of wishful thinking, what we have just gone through might finally give pause to Republicans — not the extremist politicians who embrace Trump’s authoritarianism, but the rest. You sense that at least some of them realize they leaped way too fast to denounce Garland and the FBI before understanding that the search in Mar-a-Lago was motivated by amply justified fears for our nation’s security.
Joe Biden will never seize the public stage the way Trump does. He will never galvanize mobs, inspire frenzied loyalty — or encourage his supporters to embrace and defend lies. That happens to be why Biden was elected. At the end of a consequential week, those who voted for him can feel pretty good about themselves.