The late columnist Molly Ivins once quipped about the inhabitants of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” that “‘Get along, go along’ is not an inspirational philosophy, and only God knows how much moral cowardice it has covered up over the years. Serve your time, collect your chits, and cash 'em in for your home state? No, I'd say we could ask for more than that from our senators.”
She was right, of course; we should ask more of our senators. But would that really help? Ensconced in chamber and institutionalized by the ways thereof, are our...
The late columnist Molly Ivins once quipped about the inhabitants of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” that “‘Get along, go along’ is not an inspirational philosophy, and only God knows how much moral cowardice it has covered up over the years. Serve your time, collect your chits, and cash ’em in for your home state? No, I’d say we could ask for more than that from our senators.”
She was right, of course; we should ask more of our senators. But would that really help? Ensconced in chamber and institutionalized by the ways thereof, are our senators even capable of more?
This is especially important when considering the current job performance of President Joe Biden, who has spent 36 of his 79 years as a member of the Senate.
The president’s defenders will immediately object, pointing to his eight years as vice president under Barack Obama. Fair enough. But being number two with no real authority under a historic and dynamic president was hardly a mentorship program for the top job. Certainly it wasn’t a model for the political aspects of becoming president, as the two men are very different. President Biden won the White House in his own right on his third try, defeating Donald Trump for reasons that included the Covid pandemic, scandals, the economy, and the ability of Biden’s predecessor to wear people out.
Now, facing his own re-election campaign as soon as the midterms end, and the high probability that those elections will not go well for his party, simply not being Donald Trump isn’t enough. Being the “reasonable” option opposite the Trumpian bombast and chaos doesn’t helm an economy, soothe cost-of-living concerns and improve the perception that the nation is on the wrong track. In recent reporting from its always popular “sources,” NBC news depicted a president frustrated with his staff and vice-versa, a chief executive swimming upstream against an unrelenting tide of events lapping up against the Resolute Desk.
This is where being one of those “Get along, go along” senators shows. The term perfectly encapsulates the long career of Joseph Robinette Biden. If you sought a picture of a “generic Democrat” for the Wikipedia article, it would be of Biden. The president has moved and changed positions over his long career in line with his party. It’s what made him the perfect second fiddle to the then-relatively unknown Obama. It was the core of the “steady, reasonable choice” narrative that benefited his successful campaign in 2020.
Yet it is that same attitude that is crippling this White House. Effectively selecting, appointing and managing the executive branch staff is the job of the president, as opposed to the easier, more visible on-camera performance part. That is how power is effectively wielded and governance done.
President Biden isn’t doing either particularly well at the moment. He has no real track record of the former, and has legendarily been a gaffe machine at the latter for the better part of half a century. How a president controls the machinery of the presidency is what makes the difference between a successful or disastrous presidency, and thus the course of the country.
As we near the halfway mark of President Biden’s term, the drip, drip, drip of reported infighting and senior aides talking to the press to shift blame and record unhappiness is evidence that the West Wing is neither competent nor consistent. This is clearly a presidency trying to get by on optics and rhetoric in lieu of accomplishment. A rather bold plan for a politician pushing 80 who’s nowhere near as sharp as he was during his vice presidency. Still, it’s a plan consistent with Ol’ Joe’s get-along-go-along.
The unfortunate result of this strategy is that Biden’s administration is failing at the little things required to make the West Wing power structure move in effective ways. Sympathetic media spins mistakes in the Oval Office by saying Biden cannot fail, only be failed — by his staff, his comms team, and so on. But that’s not how it works. All of these failures are ultimately the president’s responsibility.
There are plenty of outside factors — political, economic and cultural — arrayed against the president right now. The hard math of a 50-50 Senate should have tamped down expectations. Historic electoral trends and world events are not all totally under his control. How he runs his staff and White House, however, ought to be. The basic leadership problems inside the White House exacerbate every issue that arises in the pressure cooker of presidential politics.
President Biden and his team might have thought, either consciously or from those long-formed habits from the Senate, that being president of the United States would be another exercise in “serve your time, collect your chits, and cash ’em in,” as Ivins put it. But when you are singularly in charge, everything rises and falls on leadership. You have to do the job, not just at the podium but in the West Wing. And if you don’t, you have no one to blame but yourself.
To Joe Biden, who grabbed the ultimate brass ring on his third try: you asked for this, and no one can — or will — answer for it but you.
Andrew Donaldson is a widely published writer and media commentator. He serves as the managing editor of Ordinary-Times.com, hosts a daily culture and politics program called Heard Tell, is a contributor for Young Voices, and has appeared on Fox News, Fox News Radio, Young Turks Network, Times Radio (UK), and various other media outlets.