Someone needs to tell Joe Biden he is the President of the United States. Yesterday he made his first real appearance before the country at a CNN town hall in Wisconsin. Even with pitched softballs from the host Anderson Cooper and a friendly, carefully chosen audience, Biden looked unfocused, unsure of statements from his own administration and off-balance on the two most important issues facing the country: reopening schools and foreign relations with China. 

Candidate Biden was presented to the country as the anti-Trump, the passive-voice grandfather who was going to give America a Werther’s Original and regale us with some great stories and make us all feel better. The corporate media is doing its best to keep up this charade, soaking up content from his two dogs and a weekend playing Mario Kart. But four weeks into his presidency, Biden’s messaging on school openings is muddled and tracking further away from what ‘the science’ says. The President was peppered with questions from children and union-friendly teachers but not much more. His performance won’t cut it for the duration of his term.  

Though a particular section of NeverTrump Republicans have been projecting their own personal image of Joe Biden in On Golden Pond, Joe Biden remains Joe Biden, prone to forgetting his points and what fact-checkers have now dubiously labeled ‘Joe being Joe’. At one point Biden said his administration had not yet acquired a COVID-19 vaccine upon taking office, which was of course false: Biden himself received both his COVID shots prior to taking office. 

He chalked up his own press secretary’s school reopening botched talking point as a ‘miscommunication’ but wouldn’t elaborate more than that. Joe Biden is at the mercy of the teachers’ unions on school reopenings. He knows it. His Vice President knows it. Anderson Cooper knows it, and after last night, the country should know it. 

On the issue of human rights and his first conversation as president with China’s general secretary Xi Jinping, Biden offered a first glimpse of his stance on China, which appears to be a passive ‘do no harm’ policy of distancing. Biden has repeatedly said China are ‘not bad folks’ and labeled them a global competitor on the world market, not a hostile unforgiving adversary. In an almost apologetic tone, Biden explained to the cameras that his job as president is to ‘reflect the values of the United States’ and that he would speak out against China’s actions in Hong Kong, or against the Uighur genocide, or in Taiwan. This seemed positive. Biden then backed down and simply wrote off these human rights abuses as just ‘culturally different norms’.

Biden is fitting into a position he has pursued for almost 30 years; he finally caught the car and now doesn’t know what to do with it. But Biden is no longer auditioning. He’s going to be held to account, perhaps not by an overly friendly media, but certainly by a pandemic-weary country wondering when their kids can go back to schools in districts that are friendly to the President. Biden can start acting like a President, or continue looking like a passive hostage to special-interest union groups and foreign adversaries. 

His administration is shifting the goalposts at the whims of his decades-long donors. His press secretary only offers flailing talking points. And with the exception of a brief reemergence on Fox News today, there is no Donald Trump to serve as a distraction. The realization that Joe Biden is the same Joe Biden he’s been for 37 years in Washington is going to become more apparent.