Every modern American presidency eventually hits bumps in the road, at which point the call will come from someone somewhere to “let the president be himself.”
Many of us are familiar with the “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” episode of “The West Wing,” but the modern version of the cliché dates to the 1980s. Ronald Reagan presided over an administration that was essentially a coalition: conservative movement activists inherited from Barry Goldwater, and members of the conservative governing establishment inherited from Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Whenever faced with frustrating signs of moderation or pragmatism — or just bad publicity — the call would go forth: “Let Reagan be Reagan.”
Today, it’s Joe Biden whose poll numbers are dismal. And as if on cue, Politico published a story last week quoting the usual suspects — “members of Biden’s inner circle,” including his wife and sister — complaining that the White House staff “has managed Biden with kid gloves, not putting him on the road more or allowing him to flash more of his genuine, relatable, albeit gaffe-prone self.” It even has a source directly calling on the staff to “let Biden be Biden.”
And in this case, it’s a pretty good idea.
It’s easy to forget now, but — despite the candidate’s status as the former vice president in a popular and successful Democratic administration — Biden’s 2020 operation had a lot of the atmosphere of a long-shot campaign.
In terms of fund-raising, he lagged behind Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg to the very end (in the early running, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris were ahead of him too). He didn’t have much of the party’s “top” staff talent behind him, and he wasn’t well-liked or broadly supported by the constellation of para-party non-profit groups that make up the progressive movement.
Out of step with the country — not
It’s not as if people didn’t know who Biden was. It’s that they didn’t want him to lead the party. By the standards of younger, college-educated liberals, he was too moderate.
Biden reminisced about working with segregationists, scolded low-income parents over their child-rearing practices, and called Harris a “kid.”
From a policy standpoint, he was the lead author of a then-much-reviled 1994 crime bill and he wouldn’t endorse faddish ideas such as banning fracking, decriminalising illegal entry into the United States or passing Medicare for All. Biden was seen as an all-around yesterday’s man out of step with a country and party demanding bold progressive change.
Except it turned out that it was the young staffers and the upscale donor class who were out of touch. Most Democrats are on the older side, don’t have college degrees, and are pretty moderate. It’s a lesson that became more and more clear as Biden accumulated primary victories (and one underlined by Eric Adams’s victory in New York last year and Chesa Boudin’s recall in San Francisco last week).
You might think that, after he won the nomination in 2020, Biden could finally be Biden. But he still needed to court Democratic Party elites.
Selecting the more liberal Harris as vice president helped Biden win over donors who were unenthused about his campaign. He fired his original campaign manager and brought on Jen O’Malley Dillon, the No. 2 official on Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and former architect of the O’Rourke presidential campaign.
And he formed a unity task force with Sanders to get progressive activists excited, becoming the first Democrat in living memory to reposition himself to the left after winning the nomination.
Let Biden be Biden
Since Biden has been in the White House, the same pattern has emerged. A thin layer of mostly older longtime Biden associates sits atop a set of hundreds of mid- and low-level staffers who mostly would have preferred Harris or Warren in the Oval Office.
These staffers — whether deliberately or subconsciously — are biased against letting Biden speak extemporaneously. Fear of gaffes and concern about 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 he is on the record in public on various topics, the harder it will be for them to win internal policy arguments.
A mismatch between the politics of the president and those of his staff is nothing 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 from the huge budget deficits created early in his administration. Trump-era establishmentarians probably saved the country from several disasters but also talked him out of some more moderate instincts on gun control in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
A “Let Biden Be Biden” approach would almost certainly involve some gaffes; this is Joe Biden after all. And the fear that those gaffes would be interpreted in the worst possible light, given his age, is not unreasonable.
Biden unleashed is also likely to reveal that the president actually is out of step — with some of the values of the contemporary progressive movement.
Many of Biden’s younger aides doubtless see that as a problem. In reality, it is one of his political strengths. And as the national agenda turns to issues such as new initiatives to fight inflation and crime rather than new investments in preschool and childcare, Biden would be well-served by a return to form.
After all, if the members of the White House staff who currently manage Biden’s public image had a better grasp of public opinion than their boss, he wouldn’t be president. Sometimes the cliché is true: They should let Biden be Biden.
Matthew Yglesias is an author and the co-founder of Vox. His latest book is “One Billion Americans.”