Joe Biden Wants You to Just Calm the Heck Down

His success consistently comes from turning down the temperature

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Remember, back in the Obama days, this old meme?

I feel like I saw this meme every week during the Obama presidency. There would always be some fire raging, whether it was the emergence of the tea party, or economic collapse, or WikiLeaks, or birtherism, or the 2012 election, and liberals like me would run around freaking out that it was all going to fall apart. This was the response that would make you feel better: Obama’s got this. He’s smarter than the bad guys, he has a plan for this, he knows what he’s doing. Everyone chill the fuck out.

It’s remarkable, after the four years we’ve just been through, that we were so panicked during Obama’s years in office. The worst dumpster fire of the Obama era wouldn’t make the top 100 on the Trump Chart of Atrocities. Every worst-case scenario we imagined during Obama’s presidency came true during Trump’s. And, it turned out, there were many, many worst-cases that we hadn’t considered. There were so many reasons to panic.

A large part of Joe Biden’s pitch for his candidacy — from his sober tone, to his outreach, to his reliance on experienced veterans of previous Democratic administrations — was that a vote for him was a vote for a return to the relative normality of the Obama era. But Biden’s insistence that everyone needs to calm down is perhaps his most Obama-like quality, and one oddly unremarked upon. But this is how he won. And this is precisely what his inauguration was all about.

Remember, back when Biden was in the crowded field of Democratic candidates, he was the one—when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and other top-tier contenders were (totally understandably) being firebrands about the nightmare of the Trump presidency and pushing dramatic, radical change to combat him—who stayed calm. He talked noticeably less during debates and vigorously obeyed the rules — he routinely noted that his speaking time was up as other candidates just went on and on — and he often sat back as everyone else punched themselves out. After he lost New Hampshire, Iowa, and New Mexico, and it looked like Bernie was going to be the nominee (leading to palpable agita among those who feared Bernie was too far left for a national campaign, something that most post-2020 voter data seems to support), he assured his staff and voters that he was fine, that he wasn’t going anywhere, that he was about to compete in states that were much more amenable to his campaign style. And he was right! Starting with South Carolina, Biden got on a roll, winning state after state before clinching the nomination shortly after the pandemic hit. He did not pull out any wild tricks, or make some bombastic statements. He stayed the course. He stuck to what he did best. He spoke only of his central message: We are better than this. We must work together. Trump does not represent America.

It was like this in the general campaign as well. Trump would throw out every deranged, cruel thing he could think to say about Biden, and he screamed at and interrupted Biden so much at their first debate that it felt like a public mercy that Trump bailed on the second one. Biden did not strike back, he refused to get into a dragged-out fight, he constantly looked to the camera and talked to Americans about dignity, and resilience, and, yes, hope. When Biden won the election and Trump refused to admit it and continued to try to overturn the results, Biden went about the business of setting up his government, of finding solutions to America’s biggest problems, of staying calm and letting everyone know that he wasn’t worried, this was all going to work out. Remember when he was asked whether Republicans who weren’t acknowledging his election would eventually come around?

“We’re going to be moving along in a consistent manner, putting together our administration within the White House, and reviewing who we’re going to pick for the Cabinet positions,” said Biden. “And nothing’s going to stop that. The fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge that we won at this point is not of much consequence in our planning and what we’re able to do between now and January 20.”

“How do you expect to work with Republicans if they won’t even acknowledge you as president-elect?” one reporter asked.

“They will,” Biden replied. “They will.”

And he was right. They stood behind him Wednesday morning, as he took the oath of office and spoke to Americans about uniting, and fixing Trump’s mess (without ever using his name), and about the country we have been, we can be, and will be again. It was the same message he had been giving for months. Except this time he was doing it as president.

It was fitting that his Inauguration Day was, initially, one more freak out. After the attack on the U.S. Capitol and reports that there could be extremists embedded within the National Guard—and of course the pandemic—there were many who wanted the inauguration held indoors. Wanted Biden to be protected, we’d make an exception from our traditions and rituals because of these special circumstances. But Biden didn’t waver. He went out there, with strength and resolve, in front of America and the world, and became the President of the United States. And it was all fine. He was right.

“Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” Biden said in his inaugural speech. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”

There is so much work to do. Biden will make mistakes, fall short, and disappoint. It is too difficult a job for him, or anyone, to do perfectly. But from the beginning of this campaign until now, he has stayed the course, ignored the noise, and kept his rock-solid faith in the American electoral system and the wisdom of the American people. And he was right. He was right all along. I feel calmer right now. Already. Don’t you? So Chill the Fuck Out: Biden’s Got This.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of five books, including “How Lucky,” in bookstores now. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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