If the episode of collective insanity between Election Day and Inauguration Day was one of the sorriest and scariest short stories in American hist
If the episode of collective insanity between Election Day and Inauguration Day was one of the sorriest and scariest short stories in American history, the opening scenes of Chapter One in President Joe Biden Story are remarkably impressive and reassuring. It seems like many Democrats and anti-Trumpers are still slogging through a kind of postpartum depression, understandably. It’s hard to let your guard down and muster civic optimism after four years of Donald Trump. But try.
Joe Biden and his team have delivered on a pitch-perfect, well-orchestrated and stunningly substantive opening act. We are long out of the habit of giving presidents trust or high marks, but the guy deserves some big cheers right now.
Biden is not, in fact, getting the dazzling high honeymoon approval numbers that Barack Obama racked up in the early weeks of 2009. That’s not surprising. Obama took office facing one colossal crisis, the financial meltdown. And as the first Black president, he had history-making admiration.
Focus on America’s soul is unifying
Poor Joe Biden walked into three crises, all bigger: a pandemic, an economic and unemployment calamity, and an attempted coup. That his approval rating is in the mid-50s, and that the federal government, even Congress, is resuming something like “regular order” will be, I am confident, clearly recognized in history too. Sorry to be corny, but this underrated politician deserves more thanks and high-fives right now.
For all the skilled statecraft that has gone into Biden’s rollout, it seems to me that its success comes mostly from continuing the two basic pillars of his campaign.
From the beginning, Biden stuck to one fundamental message, repeated infinitely, that he would “restore the soul of America.” What that soul is, is in the eye of the beholder. And that is okay, it is even a virtue. In his memoir, Obama reflects on how, as a presidential candidate, he knew he had become a vessel for people’s own dreams of hope and change, kind of Rorschach candidate.
Biden the candidate had been around for too long to be that kind of blank slate. But his focus on the concept of the soul of America brilliantly served that function. What does the restoration of our civic soul look like? Good manners? Normal human behavior? Not lying? Liberal policies? Respect for government? Compassion for people with hard lots? Sanity?
Candidate Biden could carry these varied projections, hopes and expectations credibly because they largely matched his own virtues. Now he’s doing it on the big stage, with aplomb.
Another core tactic used by Candidate Biden and then President-elect Biden was to ignore Trump and his antics as much as possible. This often seemed counterintuitive during the campaign and it rankled many of his supporters and the pundits. But perhaps it cut off a bit of Trump’s oxygen and inflated Biden’s own stature. The strategy certainly comports with the classic advice loosely attributed to Napoleon, “Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.”
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Since the Jan. 6 insurrection, Biden has pretty much ignored the debates over whether Trump should be impeached and convicted. He hasn’t had much to say about Marjorie Taylor Green’s worries that Jewish lasers from space are starting wildfires.
On top of this, there are interesting signs that Democrats are also acting with unusual restraint and savvy — not necessarily Democratic elected and party officials, but more the activists, grassroots workers, voter protection groups and labor organizers whose contribution to Biden’s victory has not been fully measured or appreciated yet.
A ceasefire from interest groups
For example, Molly Ball of Time has recently reported on how a coalition of Democratic activists and organizers wisely and quickly got their people (who mostly did not start the year as Biden backers), who were mobilized for massive demonstrations the day after the election and then again on Jan. 6, to stand down when it became clear that clashes with right-wing extremists would be dangerously counter-productive. The strategy worked well and there were no scenes of rabble and violence involving left-wing and Democratic activists.
And now at this early stage, it does seem, so far, that the usually cacophonous constellation of Democratic allied interest groups is patiently giving the Biden administration a ceasefire, so they maneuver under some cover.
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So, it seems plausible the very experienced Biden team has found a formula for at least the initial crisis period of his tenure: Serve the soul through the restoration of traditions, courtesies, dignity, alliances, straight-shooting, factual integrity executed by the president and competent, expert, diverse appointees; ignore and transcend Trump and the loudest Trumpers; relentlessly focus on delivering goods and services to those who need them most; and leverage the power of a grassroots and activist network that seems to have gained new levels of reach, competence, unity and discipline in the racial protests and campaign of 2020.
Indeed, this could also be the long-range recipe for isolating and neutering Trumpism. But even if the extraordinary opening of the Biden presidency is just a brief, shining moment, it’s the kind of moment the country hasn’t had for years. So, thanks Mr. President, from a grateful nation.
Dick Meyer, a veteran of CBS News, NPR, BBC News and Scripps, is the author of “Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.” Follow him on Twitter: @DickMeyer_DC