Like a jackhammer outside your bedroom, the spectacle and racket that was Donald Trump as president continually reverberated across the consciousness of the nation. His tweets, impromptu media hits, leaks and, frankly, incompetence and cruel divisiveness created a response reflex that was always on edge. Its cacophony infected all aspects of our national discourse with lies, pettiness, and the fear of what might come.
To say Joe Biden is absent from our national obsessions would be an exaggeration of course. He is, after all, the president of the United States during very perilous times, on multiple fronts. And he has already passed a major piece of legislation. When one considers all this, I suspect that by normal presidential standards (if we can still remember them) his coverage is about what one might expect. The lead headlines of the major papers often contain his name. The evening newscasts show his image.
But what strikes me once again is the consequential difference between the sound and fury of a president who seemed to care only about owning the media spotlight and a president eager to lead in the tone and tenor of actual governance.
What was going on in the Trump White House? There are a lot of insinuations that naturally arise from that question: the specter of corruption, illegality, infighting, etc. But leaving all those aside, from the actual measurement of policy and administrative activities among the cabinet departments, what was really going on? There was certainly a particularly cruel streak on immigration, led by Stephen Miller. And there was the rolling back of regulations on the environment, etc. But one got the sense, bolstered by reporting, that the administration and its titular head cared a lot more about scoring points on Sean Hannity than actually doing all the business a government is supposed to be doing. And that obviously included such things as preparing a response to a deadly pandemic.
With President Biden, one gets a very different tone, and substance. The members of his cabinet, and those in other roles at the various departments, tend to be accomplished women and men with years of pertinent experience, including in government. They seem to have been poised, from day one, with a focus on action. One gets the sense that the engine of government is warming up, and getting ready to hum. And this is being led by a president who seems comfortable not trying to dominate the media spotlight.
To write this is not to endorse the actions of the Biden Administration. The policies and approaches they take will deserve the full scrutiny of the press and other interested groups and individuals. It is just to comment on what is emerging of note, that tweets and a press corps on pins and needles does not make the substance of politics.
We are seeing in the wake of Trump that large swaths of the Republican Party are following his playbook. It’s a lot of media stunts, faux outrages, and flurries of abusive tweets and cable news appearances. What do these representatives and senators want to actually accomplish other than to “own the libs?” Mitch McConnell might not be on Tucker Carlson’s speed dial, but he also practices a toxic brand of non-governance. His biggest effort is to stop the consideration of any bill that might address real problems. It’s judges, tax cuts, and a big wall of “no.”
It is clear the Democrats have learned their lessons from the Obama administration, when things weren’t even as bad as they are now. They are trying to use the lever of power they have to make big changes. One gets the sense, again, that they are prepared. But there is only so much you can accomplish through executive action. The legislating of our government requires the legislative branch. And we can all see the odds that this faces, especially in the Senate.
Joe Biden has been around Washington long enough to know how things work, and how broken they are. He is betting that a low-profile approach, of not being the story while hoping the challenges we face shape the news framing, will be the key to a consequential presidency of accomplishment. It really does seem that neither he nor his team are obsessed with the cacophony of the modern media environment Trump so obsessively and expertly dominated. We will see if this approach can succeed where others have failed. Will less truly lead to more?