The President Who Wasn’t There
Teddy Roosevelt fervently believed that the president of the United States should be at the center of the political universe, constantly attracting attention to himself. But he’d never met Joe Biden. Biden is the most powerful man in the world and yet makes almost no impression. No one, besides political and media professionals, wonders what Biden is going to say about something or considers him a figure of fascination. In fact, he barely rates. His recent CNN town hall was a fizzle, averaging only 1.5 million viewers. Fox News easily beat it with its regular programming, and MSNBC had more viewers as well, dumping the president of the United States into third place in the cable-ratings race. He’s underperformed in more formal settings, too. Biden drew 27 million for his first address to a joint session of Congress, whereas Donald Trump drew 48 million. The contrast with Trump’s constant, impossible-to-ignore cocktail of provocation and political melodrama, naturally makes Biden’s approach even more stark. He’s the Olympic badminton competition after a WWE match; he’s elevator music after a heavy metal concert; he’s the sparkler after a fireworks display. Biden’s presidency is, in this sense, practically premodern, almost hearkening back to the pre-mass-media days when presidents were neither seen nor heard. Of course, this is in part a deliberate choice by the White House, playing on the contrast with Trump and limiting Biden’s exposure to avoid distractions (and gaffes). Being a notably low-voltage political figure worked for Biden in his comeback primary campaign and in the 2020 general election, so why not as president? As a result, Biden strangely doesn’t feel like the main event of the Biden years. Assuming it arrives, the midterm backlash in 2022 won’t be directly about Biden; instead, it will be driven by the Biden-adjacent issues of the border, crime, critical race theory and — if they reemerge in force — mask mandates and school closures. Biden is the prime driver of only one of these issues, the crisis at the border that easily could have been avoided by keeping in place the policies the Trump administration had implemented to get control of the flow of migrants. In other words, the culture war itself is likely to be the overwhelming issue in 2022, rather than the president. This would be a marked departure from the midterm shellackings that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama got in 1994 and 2010, which were deeply personal rejections of both men (Clinton was viewed as a draft dodger unworthy of the office and Obama as a crypto-socialist hostile to American exceptionalism). If no one on the right is enamored of Biden, very little energy is invested in opposing him as such. Indeed, the idea that tends to generate the most interest and passion isn’t that the president is assiduously working to destroy the American way of life so much as Biden — whose verbal meanderings can be truly bizarre — isn’t in charge at all.
Given the alternatives, this probably works in Biden’s favor. He is pushing a truly radical spending agenda that would, if championed by a more in-yourface progressive president rather than someone who feels like a caretaker, surely be met with much fiercer resistance.
But there are risks to Biden, too. If his spending agenda founders, it’s not clear what comes next. Even if the White House decides to try to “unleash” Biden, he is not wellsuited to rallying the country or driving an agenda. His low-intensity presidency may, as his advisers hope, help create a sense of a return to normality in Washington, but it easily could be consistent with a disturbing sense of drift. Usually, the continued from page
dynamic of the presidency is if you don’t seem to be in control of events, they are in control of you.
The test for Biden will be if, eventually, he has to be the dominant public figure in his own presidency.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.