Images of Joe Biden giving speeches and shaking hands with foreign dignitaries on his trip to Europe will feature prominently in the news in the week ahead. But once back in the United States, the pattern that has prevailed over the past five months is likely to resume.
Which means the president will disappear again.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, it was common for Democrats to speak encouragingly about a Biden administration’s boredom over the continuing cycle of chaos, cruelty and outrage that has 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 come back to life. normal, with a slower pace and the president moving away from public view, allowing other people and subjects to proliferate, and our nation’s public life to settle in and heal, perhaps even with a minimum of return unit.
This is not what happened. Biden has indeed taken a step back – from Trump, absolutely, but even from Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Biden just doesn’t say or do much in public. Instead, it is content to allow deputies, staff and Congressional Democrats to take the lead in getting the administration’s message out. The result is that we often have the impression that we don’t have a president at all.
Yet the nation has not calmed down. On the contrary, the virtual wars that have rocked the country for the past four years have continued. The main difference is that the president plays very little there. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s not particularly encouraging either. Indeed, it indicates deeper cultural and political changes that define the context of the Presidency.
Beyond the will to do the opposite of Trump, there are several strong arguments in favor of a president playing a lesser role in our politics. Treating the president like a monarch is not healthy for a democracy, so anything that diminishes his role is good. A less prominent head of the executive branch could allow power to revert to Congress or the States and away from the Imperial Presidency. A largely invisible president is less likely to stir up war hysteria.
Then, we have to go back to the president’s original conception of being above politics. Perhaps the best way for a president to rise above the din of political battle is for him to 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 belong to the world we actually live in? It reminds me of Aristotle’s tendency to separate arguments that are “just true” from those that are true in particular concrete situations. If we could start the country all over again, knowing how we ended up, maybe it would be a good idea to redouble our efforts to prevent the Presidency from taking over the role it played in the 19th and 20th centuries. But given how the story actually unfolded, I wonder if any of these ideal arguments apply.
For much of the 20th century, the president was both the chief executive, the leader of a political party, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces who, on occasion, spoke to the nation in his together and were treated as its titular leader. Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, urban or rural, male or female, white or black or brown, when the president addressed the nation, especially in times of crisis, the overwhelming majority of Americans listened with respect, confident that he spoke for and to the whole country. In this regard, the original conception of an extra-political president has persisted, coexisting with the more political roles he would also play.
This has continued even as parties have become more ideologically polarized – and the country as a whole more centerless – in recent decades. In a country divided by party, class, race, education, region, culture, religion, entertainment, sources of information and a myriad of other differences, the president was the only person who could stand at the center of our national life and speak to all of us as parts of a larger whole. Even George W. Bush and Barack Obama could still do it on occasion.
But not Donald Trump. No president has asked for and received more attention from more Americans, and no president has so stubbornly refused to speak to all Americans equally. (Not even Lincoln, who spoke frequently with great respect for those who had seceded and gone to war with the Union.) Trump was a tribal supporter to the end, treating those who had not voted for him almost like second-class people. citizens, as personal enemies as well as enemies of its supporters and their view of the United States and its history.
Trump has thus managed to stand at the center of our national life as much as any president has ever done. and to greatly intensify our absence of a center. It was all Trump, all the time, with love or hate for him forming the core, and often the sum total, of most people’s political identity.
Biden is right in wanting to reverse this trend – and is probably right in thinking 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 the fading in the background is likely to help. If the root of the problem is the lack of a center, then it’s hard to see how that could. It is true that an absent president avoids further polarizing the country, but that does not really bring the country together either.
What we have instead is a void at the center of our public life that is filled with more noise than ever. Many days we feel leaderless, flying off in a million directions, engaging in figurative fist fights on the deck of the US stateship, with no one having the general legitimacy to step in, take charge. and restore order and civility courtesy.
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 in the absence of an undeniable external threat to bring us together, because Trump has taken us past the point of no return in our absence of a center.
In this case, Biden’s invisible presidency may be the best thing he or anyone else can do in the situation – an enactment, in political terms, of the fundamental principle that guides physicians in their treatment of sick patients: do no harm.