Recalling his college days, according to biographer Evan Osnos, Biden described himself as “a dangerous combination of arrogant and sloppy.” He had a stutter as a boy, and Osnos writes that “he never entirely shed the insecurity. . . . He can still name the grade school students who humiliated him.”
When Donald Trump tagged him as “Sleepy Joe,” the nickname seemed to stick. Biden sometimes seemed to be operating half a speed too slow. His sentimentality and his press-the-flesh style recalled Irish American politicians of another era. In debates, he sometimes seemed to veer toward the line between coherence and gibberish.
Biden walked into the White House with the gift of low expectations. His supporters were praying that he would be a strong leader, but when pressed for examples to buttress their faith, they often came up short. But it turned out that being a sleeper had its advantages — especially following the chaotic presidency of a narcissistic showman like Trump.
Two weeks into the job, Biden’s performance has surprised Republicans and Democrats alike. His policy moves have been quick and deliberate. His political touch has been light and deft. Every day, the White House rolls out a new policy initiative, presidential appointment or string of executive orders. By doing the ordinary tasks of government competently, Biden manages to seem unusual. It feels like the reinvention of what used to be known as “regular order.”
Biden’s most nimble maneuver has been to ignore Trump and the political mania he brought to every interaction. He doesn’t talk about his predecessor; he won’t take a position on whether Trump should be convicted in the Senate impeachment trial. Rather than being miffed about Trump’s decision to skip the inauguration, he said it was “one of the few things we agree on.”
Biden’s initial two weeks have been one of the best-scripted political rollouts I can remember. Politicians often talk about messaging — contrived events such as Trump’s “infrastructure week” — but Biden’s team actually set a political agenda and hammered it home, day after day. It’s a startlingly simple set of priorities — get the country vaccinated; fix the economy — and though Biden’s deputies talk other policy initiatives, the centerline remains clear.
Two people have seemed to play especially prominent roles in these first two weeks — one conspicuous, the other mostly hidden. The one we see is Jen Psaki. Like Biden, she has the gift of following a string of the worst press secretaries in modern history. After her predecessors, it’s a relief just to have someone at the lectern who isn’t telling obvious lies.
But Psaki is doing better than that. She’s knowledgeable about policy, when she doesn’t know something she admits it, and she doesn’t treat reporters with contempt.
The ringmaster has been Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain. His hyper-organization has been a reminder that a strong chief of staff is the single most important factor in a successful presidency. That’s especially true with a president like Biden, talky and imprecise, who needs discipline and focus.
Leon E. Panetta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, once asked William Daley what his “deal” was when he signed on as Obama’s chief of staff in January 2011. In other words, what assurance he had from the president about his authority within the White House. “I don’t have a deal,” Daley is said to have answered, to which Panetta responded, “You’re f---ed.” Clearly, Klain has a deal.
The final, telling point about Biden’s rollout is that despite enormous pressure from progressive Democrats to be as relentlessly partisan as his predecessor, Biden has refused. He’s a man of the center. He wants to make deals. The first big congressional group he invited to the White House was 10 Republican senators. Progressives may not like this centrist style, but their candidates didn’t win the nomination.
Yes, Biden may move toward the hardball tactic of using reconciliation to force through his agenda with 51 Senate votes, rather than negotiating a bipartisan package on covid-19 spending. But he will have tried. And the fact that he has reconciliation in his holster makes me think he’s likelier to get a deal than many expect.
Biden is vastly short of being a perfect president. But two weeks in, the signs are that he’ll do fine. And for now, that’s more than enough.