Finally, American Politics Are Boring Again
An appreciation of how wonderfully, revolutionarily boring Joe Biden has been as president
What’s President Joe Biden’s position on the legal travails of Representative Matt Gaetz? Where does he stand on the removal of some Dr. Seuss books from publication? What public comments did he make about the Japanese golfer who won the Masters last weekend? What does President Joe Biden think about NFTs? After copious research, I believe the answers to those questions are none, he doesn’t, he didn’t, and he almost definitely has no idea what that is.
I keep trying to articulate just what we are currently experiencing as a country, and I think I’ve found a good comparison. Do you remember that feeling you would have after standing far too close to the stage at a big concert? You would emerge after 60 or 90 minutes of having your eardrums pummeled, and all the workaday noise of the city — the honking taxicabs and the street-corner conversations and the rumble of trains — would sound oddly tinny and distant. You’d wonder, would your ears recover after the beating they had just endured? Could you ever hear normally again? And why did everything suddenly seem so quiet?
Donald Trump was a foghorn blaring over the landscape, drowning out all other observable sound. He had little to say other than his ritual of racial grievance, scientific illiteracy, and hunched suspicion of all foreigners, but insisted on repeating it ad infinitum at maximum decibel levels. I would like to think that Trump lost reelection because his titanic failures of experience, orientation, and understanding were laid bare by the catastrophic response of the U.S. to Covid, but I suspect that playing an equal part in his dismissal was the president’s unnerving similarity to a poorly behaved barbecue guest. After years of his presence, many Americans were simply tired of having to listen to his harangues.
Enter “Uncle Joe.” In the public persona, Biden is a gabby, garrulous Irish uncle, prone to dramatic gaffes and slightly embarrassing enthusiasms. He was the guy who told Barack Obama that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was a “big fucking deal,” the guy whom The Onion depicted as washing his Camaro shirtless on the White House driveway. Life is long and 82 days into an administration is early to make grand pronouncements, but one of the most notable early trends of the Biden administration has been its profound discipline. The president has refused to be absorbed into any of the latest Twitter feuds or Fox News brouhahas. Like Obama, Biden understands that he has inherited the presidency at a moment of maximal chaos, where the gears of government have ground to a halt. He has no time to spare for the fleeting controversies of the day. Joe Biden, whatever his perceived flaws, was a known commodity, and his campaign, and now his administration, have diligently emphasized his sober mournfulness and his experience.
It is rare to see people who have been in public life for decades learn new tricks. We saw it, dismally, with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who transformed himself into the president’s snarling attack dog because he thought it might keep him relevant for another few precious minutes. And we see it now with Biden, who has adopted a ferocious sense of message discipline at the most opportune moment. Our ears are still ringing from the last four years, and the Biden/Harris administration grasps that the last thing we need right now is more noise.
To paraphrase Adam Gopnik, one of the perils of studying history is the ease of learning precisely the wrong lessons from the past. The lesson of Trump’s presidency was that people never changed; the lesson of Biden’s may be that people do.
We are all exhausted and overwhelmed. The end of Covid may be approaching, but most of us are too tired and worn down to feel anything but profound relief. The volume of the country’s political debates has been temporarily turned down, but few of us believe that it is likely to stay that way for long. (How soon before Trump, or one of his offspring, declares themselves the 2024 presidential front-runner?)
Still, it’s worth sitting with the quiet for a moment because something remarkable is happening in the silence. As Republicans fulminate over obscure Dr. Seuss volumes or insist that Biden is unable to occupy the office of the presidency because his tweets are not spicy enough, the president is getting out millions of doses of the vaccine to Americans every day. He is reducing child poverty in the United States by almost half. He is getting cash payments out to those most in need. And efforts are ramping up to spend trillions of dollars repairing our broken infrastructure, providing everything from broadband internet to affordable childcare to rebuild our country. That bland old guy who never amuses us by taking pictures of himself eating Mexican food or retweeting GIFs of himself beating up cable networks is restoring hope in our sense of what government can accomplish. Sorry to bore you, but there is a revolution starting to take place, and absolutely none of it is taking place on Twitter. Politics has become boring again, and what I mean by that is that utterly remarkable things are taking place as we speak.