Biden must unleash his inner Biden

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Every modern presidency eventually encounters bumps in the road, at which point the call will come from someone somewhere to “let the president be himself.”

Many of my friends know the episode “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” from “The West Wing”, but the modern version of the cliche is from the 1980s. Ronald Reagan presided over an administration that was essentially a coalition: activists from the conservative movement inherited of Barry Goldwater and members of the conservative establishment inherited from Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Whenever they were faced with frustrating signs of moderation or pragmatism – or simply bad publicity – the call went out: “Let Reagan be Reagan”.

Today, it is Joe Biden whose polls are dismal. And fittingly, Politico published an article last week citing the usual suspects — “members of Biden’s inner circle,” including his wife and sister — complaining that White House staff “handled Biden with kid gloves, not putting him on the road more or allowing him to show more of his authentic, relatable, albeit goof-prone, self. He even has a source directly calling on staff to “let Biden be Biden.”

And in this case, it’s a very good idea.

It’s easy to forget now, but — despite the nominee’s status as a former vice president in a popular and successful Democratic administration — Biden’s 2020 operation had plenty of the atmosphere of a long-running campaign. . In terms of fundraising, he trailed Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg until the very end (early in the race, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris also edged him out). He didn’t have much of the party’s “best” talent behind him, and he wasn’t appreciated or widely supported by the constellation of paraparty nonprofit groups that make up the progressive movement.

It’s not like people don’t know who Biden is. They didn’t want him to lead the party. By the standards of younger college-educated liberals, he was too moderate.

Biden recalled his work with segregationists, berated low-income parents for their child-rearing practices and called Harris “a kid.” Politically, he was the lead author of a then much reviled 1994 Crime Bill and he would not endorse fanciful ideas such as banning fracking, decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States or adoption of Medicare for All. Biden was seen as a trustworthy figure, a versatile yesterday’s man out of step with a country and a party demanding bold progressive change.

Except it turned out that it was the younger staff and the high-end donor class that were out of touch. Most Democrats are older, don’t have a college degree, and tend to be moderate. It’s a lesson that has become increasingly clear as Biden racked up primary wins (and one underscored by Eric Adams’ victory in New York last year and Chesa Boudin’s recall to San Francisco). Francisco last week).

You might think that after winning the nomination in 2020, Biden could finally be…Biden. But he still needed to court the elites of the Democratic Party.

Selecting the more liberal Harris as vice president helped Biden win over donors who weren’t enthusiastic about his campaign. He fired his original campaign manager and brought in Jen O’Malley Dillon, Barack Obama’s second-in-command re-election campaign manager and former architect of O’Rourke’s presidential campaign. And he formed a unity task force with Sanders to rouse progressive activists, becoming the first Democrat in living memory to shift to the left after winning the nomination.

Since Biden has been in the White House, the same pattern has emerged. A thin layer of longtime, mostly older Biden associates sits atop a cluster of hundreds of mid- and lower-level employees who would have mostly preferred Harris or Warren in the Oval Office.

These staffers — whether deliberately or unknowingly — are biased against letting Biden speak off the cuff. Fear of blunders and concern about the Covid are part of it. But they also know that Biden’s personal political instincts are considerably less progressive than their own, and the more public he is on various topics, the harder it will be for them to win home-political arguments.

A discrepancy between the policy of the president and that of his staff is not new. But the dynamics can change with issues and over the course of an administration. The “establishment” wing of the Reagan administration provided valuable moderate ballast that helped the president claw back the huge budget deficits created early in his administration. Trump-era leaders likely saved the country from more disasters, but also deterred it from some more moderate gun control instincts following a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas .

A “Let Biden be Biden” approach would almost certainly involve some gaffes; he is Joe Biden after all. And the fear that these gaffes will be interpreted in the worst possible light, given his age, is not unreasonable.

The unleashed Biden is also likely to reveal that the president is actually out of step – with some of the values ​​of the contemporary progressive movement. Many of Biden’s younger aides no doubt see this as a problem. In reality, it is one of its political forces. And as the national agenda shifts to issues like new initiatives to tackle inflation and crime rather than new investments in preschool and childcare, Biden would be well served by a return to the form.

After all, if the White House staffers currently managing Biden’s public image had a better understanding of public opinion than their boss, he wouldn’t be president. Sometimes the cliché is true: they should let Biden be Biden.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Is Biden’s White House really “adrift”? : Jonathan Bernstein

• Biden’s economic hubris gives way to humility: Karl W. Smith

• The reset Biden and his party need: Clive Crook

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.

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