March came early this year for President Biden. He came into 2022 like a lion. The danger for him is that he may find himself going out like a lamb.
The 46th president started the year more like Fighting Bob than Sleepy Joe. Fighting Bob was Robert La Follette, elected to the Senate from Wisconsin as a Republican but a 1924 candidate for the White House as a Progressive. Sleepy Joe was the nickname for the man who, after 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president, was pilloried by Donald Trump as an ineffective stumblebum.
Biden began the year more like a modern-day Cotton Mather, the Puritan clergyman known as a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher in late 17th-century Massachusetts, than like Bill Clinton, the feel-your-pain presidential parson of molasses-infused, barbecue-sauce rhetoric and Pentecostal gospel anthems.
Who’s that guy in the White House?
The man who supped with segregationists, who bargained with bigots, who did a politician soft-shoe as he eased into being the old shoe of Washington politics, now is Battlin’ Biden.
He’s fighting for the chance to define the events of Jan. 6. He’s fighting for civil rights and voting rights. He’s fighting for his presidency. He’s fighting for his place in history.
At the same time, he has reversed the usual roles of political comportment in the executive branch.
For the past two weeks, Biden has been the fierce partisan battler, while Vice President Kamala Harris set out, both in the Capitol on the Jan. 6 anniversary and at the Atlanta rally for voting-rights legislation, a logical, cerebral argument for the administration’s case. This is a dramatic alteration in the natural order of American political life.
Since the early 1950s, presidents have sailed above the winds of daily politics, dispatching their complicit vice presidents down from the Olympian heights to engage in brutal earthly battle. The pioneer in this endeavor was Richard Nixon, who issued searing remarks to Dwight Eisenhower’s foes while the 34th president coasted in a felicitous stratosphere of calm.
Later, when Nixon became president himself, he sent his vice president, Spiro Agnew, into the partisan arena, and the former Maryland governor was pleased to attract attention by labeling the press as the “nattering nabobs of negativism”; arguing that a “spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as ‘intellectuals’”; and saying “there are people in our society who should be separated and discarded.”
But this month, the tough talk has come from the president, the analytical talk from the vice president.
In her remarks in Atlanta, for example, Harris warned calmly that Americans observing the new voting-rights restrictions faced “a danger of being complacent, complicit.” Biden pounded the podium, saying, “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress over the last two months. I’m tired of being quiet.” He adopted the fervor of Henry Wallace, the 1948 Progressive presidential candidate, to battle the legacy of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama.
That tough talk is a departure from the Biden style, shaped in the crucible of Capitol Hill, where the forceful speech on the floor is less important than the casual aside in the cloakroom. Biden was the master of the comforting comment, the gentle cajole, the easy tease, the combination of sympathy and sentimentality that became part of his political repertoire. Even as a presidential candidate, he seemed more to beg than to assert; the one time he went on a bellicose spout, he was called out for plagiarizing his remarks from a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.
The Biden transformation comes as his poll ratings remain low — he has the approval of 43% of the American people, according to the FiveThirtyEight weighted composite — and as Republicans are amping up their criticism of the president. Just days ago, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said he would abandon his pledge not to seek a third term, writing in The Wall Street Journal: “Instead of everyone working to achieve the goal President Biden stated in his inaugural address — unifying and healing America — it feels as if our nation is being torn apart.”
The question is whether tough talk can substitute for the hard work that consensus and healing require — especially as COVID rages, and while Trump continues his attacks on the president and his push to remake the Republican Party in his own aggressive image.
Most presidents calibrate and modulate their profiles, and in the perspective of history, Biden may be viewed as doing just that.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, spoke softly in his neighborly Fireside Chats, talking as if he were the kindly uncle at the hearth. But he also spoke harshly in his public remarks, saying he welcomed the hatred of his opponents and demonizing bankers, publishers of powerful newspapers and the elites he believed were standing in the way of his New Deal legislation and, later, his three reelection campaigns.
President Lyndon Johnson practiced bare-knuckle tactics in his own caucus, but when it came to trying to win popular support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Biden sought this month to bolster, he spoke calmly “of the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.”
Both approaches were effective, to be sure, but though politicians talk of creating unity, they profit by division.
“Every president needs to have opponents, and they need to be effective at defining what they stand for and what their opponents stand for,” said Matthew Dallek, a professor of political management at George Washington University. “Humming ‘Kumbaya’ to bring everybody together tends on the whole not to be effective. The ‘go-along, get-along’ approach only gets a president so far.”
So far, Biden has tried the humming approach. But it appears that when he got to the third stanza, he was struck by the notion that “Someone’s crying, Lord, Kumbaya.” That’s when he cried out himself.