I’m not in the habit of feeling sorry for Joe Biden, but for a few minutes last week, it was difficult not to. Biden was asked during a CNN town hall about — what else? — Donald Trump. His response sounded exasperated: ‘For four years all that has been in the news is Trump,’ he said. ‘The next four years I want to make sure that all the news is about the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump.’
How galling it must be. Biden has been in the Oval Office for almost exactly a month, yet during that time he’s seen his agenda eclipsed by a Senate impeachment trial of his predecessor, dealt with the aftermath of an insurrection staged by supporters of his predecessor, signed a flurry of executive orders to undo the policies of his predecessor, and been sidelined by news coverage that remains as breathless as ever over his predecessor. That same predecessor, we might note, isn’t even on Twitter anymore; he’s barely been seen in public at all since he decamped from the White House in January (his first major post-presidential speech will take place later this week at CPAC).
Yet Trump just can’t help it. Even when he tries to stay out of the limelight, his silhouette lingers, overshadowing everyone else.
All this reminded me of a hilarious BBC news segment from last November. Reporting on Biden’s being projected the election winner, that network took all its liberal hopes and aspirations and blasted them onto the new president-elect. Biden, a reporter gushed, ‘was the candidate who offered soft jazz after the heavy metal of the Trump years’. He was ‘easy-listening moderation, a presidency Americans could have on in the background’. (When he’s not screaming at voters on the campaign trail, that is.) Biden is only background noise if he’s being compared to Trump, yet that juxtaposition remains ever in place. Unfortunately for him, his presidency has thus far been treated as a kind of subsidiary of the last one.
Or maybe that’s fortunate for him. As the press finishes chattering about impeachment, as reporters hide in the bushes outside Mar-a-Lago, there’s an important angle that’s being neglected here: the Biden presidency has so far been quite impactful. Biden signed more executive orders in his first week than any other president in history, 28 of them, to Trump’s four and Barack Obama’s five. And he wasn’t just tinkering with the bureaucracy. One order axed construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline, killing 11,000 seasonal jobs and ticking off the Canadians in the process. Another ended Trump’s ballyhooed travel ban; still another prohibited entries into the United States from other countries affected by a variant COVID-19 strain. Biden canceled funding for Trump’s border wall. He placed the United States back inside the Paris climate agreement.
Even if these are mostly corrections of the last administration, they’re still major policy shifts, implemented unilaterally by a man who supposedly has deep respect for Congress. And Biden has been busy with Congress too. He’s currently pressuring them to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID package, as the national debt surpasses the size of America’s entire economy. When Barack Obama was pushing for a stimulus plan of less than half that amount in 2009, there was a serious debate about Keynesianism versus balanced budgets, federal payouts versus tax cuts. Not so today. A lack of concern about government overreach is good news for Biden, freeing him up to enact Democratic priorities, most of which involve significant federal spending.
Biden doesn’t wield the kind of power that Barack Obama did at the start of his first term. His party’s margin in the House of Representatives is thinner and he lacks the hefty Senate majority that allowed the Democrats to muscle through Obamacare until Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts. But he also isn’t as cold as Obama and is more likely to take seriously Republican concerns. Biden might not be the John Coltrane that the BBC wants him to be, but he really does know how to cajole members of Congress. And with Republicans divided and a few moderate GOP senators on hand who might be willing to make a deal — Mitt Romney, Susan Collins — that social aptitude could be put to good use.
This is, in other words, a presidency with the potential to enact serious change. What Biden understands is what his conservative opponents no longer do: political battles aren’t won by loudly abusing the other side. No one cares who gets owned on Twitter. No one gives a damn about Fox News’s ratings. The real action to be had is as ever in the well of the Senate and behind the Oval Office desk. If Biden has become background noise, it’s to his advantage, allowing him to govern without attracting the scrutiny his agenda very much deserves. His presidency might be ambience, but a lot can get done when there aren’t electric guitars thrashing in the background.