Talking Points

The incapacitating bonhomie of Biden

President Biden is nobody's idea of an attack dog. It seems a bit late in his career for him to start trying. But that's what some people in his party hope he will do; Politico reports that with the bipartisan infrastructure bill out of the way at long last, "Democrats want him to turn up the heat on Republicans."

"Sooner or later, Joe Biden has to make this more than a referendum on himself and his presidency and instead make this a stark choice between two very different ideas and philosophies," Robert Gibbs, the former press secretary to President Barack Obama, told Politico's reporter.

It's not a great idea. 

Biden's brand is built on bonhomie. Sometimes it's a weakness: During the 2020 primary election, he came under fire from then-Sen. Kamala Harris — now his vice president — for reminiscing about the good old days when he could work cooperatively with segregationists in the Senate. On the rare occasion he has served in the attack dog role (like during the 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan), he has done so with a smile on his face. And that has served him well: Biden won the presidency from Donald Trump with a campaign in which he promised to work with Republicans in an effort to "save the soul" of the country. The dirty work was left to others, like the Never-Trump brawlers at The Lincoln Project

In most administrations, the job of sharp-elbowed partisan would go to the vice president. That's trickier with Harris, who has her own popularity problems and her own ambitions: She clearly wants to become president in her own right someday, and probably — like Obama before her — will want to step carefully to avoid giving ammunition to the inevitable ugly attempts to stereotype her as an angry Black woman. That's unfortunate, but it does shape what Democrats are trying to do.

Presidents are partisans, of course, but they're also expected to stay above the fray to some extent. (Trump was the exception to the rule.) Biden certainly seemed to augur a return to that model when he was elected. Even if he suddenly wanted to wade into the fight, it's not clear that the public would buy it. This is a president who just spent most of his first year in office trying to get the bipartisan bill passed, not for the stuff that was in the bill but for the sake of proving that bipartisanship is still possible.

Biden can be that guy, or he can be fiercely partisan. He probably can't do both.