Opinion

Joe Biden: The incredible vanishing president

Chaos in the White House has been replaced by a vacuum

Images of Joe Biden giving speeches and shaking hands with foreign dignitaries during his ongoing trip to Europe will take up space in the news over the coming week. But once he returns to the United States, the pattern that's prevailed over the past five months will likely resume.

Which means the president will once again disappear.  

It was common for Democrats during the 2020 presidential campaign to talk encouragingly about how boring a Biden administration would be in comparison to the nonstop cycle of chaos, cruelty, and outrage that prevailed under President Trump. Where Trump tweeted partisan provocations day and night, keeping reporters and pundits furiously scribbling, analyzing, and denouncing 24/7, life under a Biden presidency would return to normal, with a slower pace and the president receding from public view, allowing other people and topics to proliferate, and our nation's public life to settle down and heal, perhaps even with a modicum of unity returning.

That isn't what's happened. Biden has indeed stepped back — in comparison to Trump, absolutely, but even compared to Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Biden simply doesn't say or do very much in public. He's content, instead, to allow surrogates, staffers, and Democrats in Congress to take the lead in getting the administration's message out. The result is that it often feels as if we have no president at all.

Yet the nation hasn't quieted. On the contrary, the virtual wars that roiled the country over the previous four years have continued. The primary difference is that the president plays very little part in them. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it's not especially encouraging either. Indeed, it points to deeper cultural and political changes that set the context for the presidency.

Beyond the desire to do the opposite of Trump, there are several strong arguments in favor of the president playing a smaller role in our politics. Treating the president like a monarch isn't healthy for a democracy, so anything that reduces his role is good. A less prominent head of the executive branch might allow power to flow back to Congress or the states and away from the imperial presidency. A largely invisible president is less likely to whip up war hysteria.

Then there's the case for returning to the original conception of the president as standing above politics. Maybe the best way for a president to rise above the din of political battle is for him intervene less often in partisan disputes by remaining largely silent as they rage around him.

As I said, these are powerful arguments. But do they pertain to the world we actually live in? I'm reminded of Aristotle's tendency to separate out arguments that are "true simply" from those that are true in particular concrete situations. If we could start the country over again from scratch, knowing how we've ended up, it might be a good idea to redouble our efforts to avoid the presidency taking on the role that it did over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. But given the way history actually unfolded, I wonder if any of these ideal arguments pertain.

Through most of the 20th century, the president was at once the head of the executive branch, the leader of a political party, and the commander in chief of the armed forces who would on occasion speak to the nation as a whole and be treated as its titular leader. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, urban or rural, man or woman, white or black or brown, when the president gave an address to the nation, especially in times of crisis, the overwhelming majority of Americans would listen with respect, confident that he was speaking for and to the whole country. In this respect, the original conception of an extra-political president persisted, existing alongside the more political roles he would also play.

This continued even as the parties became more ideologically polarized — and the country as a whole more centerless — over recent decades. In a country divided by party, class, race, education, region, culture, religion, entertainment, news sources, and myriad other differences, the president was the one person who could stand at the center of our national life and speak to us all as parts in a larger whole. Even George W. Bush and Barack Obama could still do this on occasion.

But not Donald Trump. No president has demanded and received more attention from more Americans, and no president so steadfastly refused to speak to all Americans equally. (Not even Lincoln, who frequently spoke with great respect of those who had seceded from and gone to war with the Union.) Trump was a tribal partisan all the way down, treating those who didn't vote for him almost as second-class citizens, as personal enemies as well as enemies of his supporters and their vision of the United States and its history.

Trump thus managed both to stand at the center of our national life as much as any president ever has and to greatly intensify our centerlessness. It was all Trump, all the time, with one's love or hatred for him forming the core, and often the sum total, of most people's political identities.

Biden is right to want to reverse this — and probably correct to think that he couldn't do it by trying to match or even approach Trumpian levels of ubiquity in our national life.

The question is whether fading into the background is likely to help. If the root of the problem is centerlessness, then it's hard to see how it could. It's true that an absent president avoids polarizing the country further, but it doesn't exactly bring the country together either.

What we have instead is a vacuum at the center of our public life that's being filled with more noise than ever. Many days we feel leaderless, flying apart into a million directions, getting into figurative fist-fights on the deck of the American ship of state, with no one possessing the broad-based legitimacy to jump in, take charge, and restore order and civic comity.

The question now is whether anyone at this point could speak for and to the nation as a whole. Maybe the truth is that no one could, at least absent an undeniable external threat to pull us together, because Trump took us beyond the point of no return in our centerlessness.

In that case, Biden's invisible presidency may be best that he or anyone else could do in the situation — an enactment, in political terms, of the foundational principle that guides doctors in their treatment of ailing patients: Do no harm.  

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