This new, self-effacing Biden is an exorcism of Donald Trump. This new, no-drama Biden is an echo of Barack Obama, whose lessons, good and bad, he has obviously learned. In the process he has accomplished one of the most striking personality transplants I’ve seen in American politics.
He has also exploded that musty maxim about old dogs and new tricks. When Trump failed to “grow” into the presidency, as critics and even some fans hoped he would, the consensus was that it had been foolish to expect otherwise. Who but Trump could Trump be? Besides, he was 70 on the day of his inauguration. He’s going to grow and learn and change after that point?
Well, Biden was 78 on the day of his inauguration, and in the year and a half immediately leading up to it, he demonstrated the new tricks of reticence and restraint. He continues to demonstrate them — “The Invisible President?” was the headline on a recent article by Joel Mathis in The Week — presumably on the theory that the less flamboyant his style, the more likely his actual policy triumphs, which won’t be complicated by his becoming a symbol of grander battles or turning himself into a cultural lightning rod.
His new tricks include a more progressive bent than in the past and, it seems, a less firm attachment to bipartisanship than he once claimed — developments that take into account the ravages of a pandemic, the toll of income inequality and his party’s current pulse. Remember those history-class debates about whether the leader makes the moment or the moment makes the leader? The moment is making — or, rather, remaking — Biden.
That’s partly evident in the absence of any full-fledged presidential news conference so far. (There’s finally one scheduled for March 25.) To be fair, his three most recent predecessors in the Oval Office — Trump, Obama and George W. Bush — had each held just one such solo back-and-forth with the press corps by this point in their presidencies, so it’s not as if Biden’s zero is in some unconscionable category all its own. But it’s also not of a piece with who Biden was and how he behaved for most of his political career, when he was famous for talking and talking, often until he talked himself into trouble.
At long last, the trouble taught him. And what it taught him was to talk less.
“Joe Biden, disciplined messenger?” was the first sentence, rendered in wonderment, in a Politico newsletter by Alex Thompson and Theodoric Meyer on Monday. The two went on to add: “The president so far has surprised some of his former colleagues and allies with a largely gaffe-free White House debut after a lifetime of verbal stumbles. We’re about to find out if it will last.”
That final observation presaged Biden’s and Vice President Kamala Harris’s travels around the country to hold public events explaining and extolling the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. It also teased the Stephanopoulos interview by ginning up some suspense: Would Biden the stumbler re-emerge?