WASHINGTON — Even though he doesn’t drink, Joe Biden was always bubbly at the holiday parties he gave at the vice president’s residence. He would lean in to tell you a good story or give you his unvarnished opinion about other top officials.
At one Christmas party, I noticed Biden’s flack following me around, looking stressed. Finally, he pulled me aside to ask what the vice president had been saying to me.
Everyone was watching Joe because they knew that his logorrhea could result in an unwanted headline or even scramble the administration’s policy calculus.
Everyone’s watching Joe again. But now reporters — in painful withdrawal from the news geyser known as Donald Trump — are dealing with a more button-down Biden. (Pity the chyron writers.) In a highly unnatural move, Biden abruptly cuts himself off mid-answer, like a yellow lab gamboling smack into an electric fence.
“And the other thing we’re doing, I might add,” he said at his first news conference, after a lengthy answer on the border crisis, before pulling back. “Am I giving you too long an answer? If you don’t want the details — I don’t know how much detail you want about immigration. Maybe I’ll stop there.”
There’s something poignant in watching Biden, once the subject of endless mockery about his tendency to spend up to 45 minutes answering one question, inculcate all that criticism and muzzle himself when he’s doing what he loves best.
This self-abnegation comes just as he improbably got to be leader of the free world — meaning he’s free to say whatever he damn well pleases for as long as he damn well pleases.
Usually, the pressure of the presidency distills the occupant to his essence. Jimmy Carter became more preachy. Bill Clinton, more self-indulgent. W., more insecure. Obama, more professorial. Trump, more mendacious and maniacal. These are early days, but after four years of hearing “Trump will be Trump,” it’s refreshing to see the 78-year-old Biden show he can still modulate ingrained behavior.
So while you’re modulating, Mr. President, here’s a suggestion: Ditch that other old habit of yours, bending over backward to appease Republicans. I know it’s a point of pride, but let’s be honest. It has led to all of your worst moments — letting Anita Hill down, letting the Iraq war start, letting Mitch McConnell sucker you on the 2012 fiscal cliff deal.
Biden should do what he can to help Senate Democrats dilute the filibuster. And he should insist on the passage of the voting rights bill the Senate designed to target the voter suppression efforts enacted in Georgia, just a preview of what’s to come in other states. Nine years after first graders were mowed down at Sandy Hook, couldn’t he finally make progress on the nation’s most shameful issue — blind worship of the AR-15?
Bipartisanship — or Bidenpartisanship — ain’t happening now. Washington is not built for unity at the moment. We live in a world where everyone is unappeasable.
As Fintan O’Toole wrote in The New York Review of Books in a piece titled “To Hell With Unity,” it must be dawning on Biden that “the willingness of most congressional Republicans to endorse Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the November election and their unwillingness to convict Trump for his role in the violent putsch of January 6” proves “there can be no illusions of accord, or even of civilized dispute.”
With the Senate and House majorities threatened in next year’s elections, there is a very narrow window to do great things. And with his first two initiatives, the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill and the $3 trillion spending package, beginning with infrastructure, that is laced with climate change and income inequality measures, he seems to be savoring his new image as someone who goes for the big and bold.
One recent evening, Biden met with historians in the East Room for two hours. It was eerily silent in a Covid-era West Wing, those present recalled, with a do-it-yourself table with urns of coffee, and everyone fully masked. The president seemed interested in activist presidencies, ones that took on big problems, like Lincoln, F.D.R. and L.B.J.
Republicans are grasping to find something to throw at Biden. Their only ammo is weak: tabloid trash about his son and the absurd idea that Joe is out of it, a smear that only became more risible after watching Thursday’s news conference. He was calm, despite the monumental nature of his plans. He seemed to know his own mind — a nice contrast with his predecessor, who was out of his mind.
Republicans are out of touch with their own voters, many of whom seem to like free money and the possibility that Biden, unlike Trump, actually wants to go big on infrastructure, rather than frittering away his days hitting the links and tweet-trashing Bette Midler.
“Republican voters agree with what I’m doing,” Biden said.
The president knows that the American identity is on the line.
“I predict to you,” he told reporters, “your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake.”
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