Updated: Mar 28
Empathy. Compassion. Political acuity. Pragmatism. Strategic thinking. Humility. Self-awareness. Patience. Complexity. Joe Biden’s first press conference on Thursday gave us our first closeup view of Biden the president, rather than the campaigning Biden, the vice-president Biden we already know. It was jam-packed with data on who he is now and how he will approach an extraordinarily difficult task.
Because Biden seemed to delay his first press conference, conservatives were desperate to find evidence to support their false charges of cognitive decline. The nonsense has even made its way into the British press. “Biden’s decline has become so painful to see,” wrote Dominic Green in the Daily Telegraph on 12 March, “and so embarrassing to watch that it feels cruel to mention it.” Poppycock. They scrambled afterwards to scrape together crumbs of evidence. Clearly, Biden was waiting until he had some good news to share on progress against Covid and on the economic rescue package. The fact that the assembled press did not ask a single follow up question shows what -- that Covid has moved off the top of the media’s list because Biden’s strategy has already been effective? One can only imagine the administrative, policy and political mess that Biden found waiting for him in the White House, and who can blame him if he has taken two months to get a handle on it. Biden has a flexible timetable in mind and will not be derailed by capricious demands: he was transparent about delays to the 1 May deadline he had set for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan; climate change, gun control, migration, voting rights – these are all problems that have been around for a long time and he will get to them, “God willing”. I want to “change the paradigm”, he repeated. We want to start to reward work, not wealth.
If Obama was professorial in style, then Biden tends more to the episcopal. He sometimes twinkles. He is patient, wise, indulgent and occasionally irritated. Like most bishops he finds it difficult to resist delivering homilies. He betrayed impatience with repeated questions about the filibuster, refusing to generate easy sound bites. This is a president juggling a vast range of complex issues, employing careful and strategic tactics. His priority is to get things done. His vast experience gives him to have a pretty good take on how to get things done.
The press will need to up their game with this president. “Aw man, I don’t know where you guys come from” he responds to inane questioning about his intentions for 2024. That’s ironic: he knows exactly where they are coming from – he just finds it a bit tiresome. You can see him struggling sometimes to translate the political complexity he is juggling with inside his head into terms the press will understand or be happy with. Of course, it is daft to expect Biden to make a clear statement about whether he will run for president in 2024 with vice president Kamala Harris. He’s quite right when he asks, will there even be a Republican party in 2024? He shows himself a master at seeing things from others’ point of view – and perhaps the least he is due is that others, including the press, will learn to understand things from his point of view.
Biden was fascinating on China: as vice president, he was tasked by Obama to build a relationship with Xi Jinping. He had spent many hours in bilateral conversations with him. Jinping doesn’t have a “democratic bone in his body” but he’s a smart guy, says Biden. The Chinese president called to congratulate Biden on his election as president and they had spent two hours on the phone. China will be a priority area for foreign policy under Biden and this relationship will be critical.
He was revealing in his approach to partisanship. Challenged over Mitch McConnell’s statement that Biden had moved far to the left, Biden again showed a moment of hesitation as he adjusted his sails to the wind. I would expect Mitch to say exactly what he said, says Biden. Biden is not bothered or surprised by McConnell and feels no need to account for it or be blown off course; McConnell is playing to his own gallery, also juggling his own complex and demanding set of current circumstances. Biden knows that he can’t convert the right wing of Republican elected representatives overnight. He seems to be doing is quietly building relationships with sympathetic Republicans and at the same time focussing on policies and actions that will appease Republican voters. Seven Republican senators who have met Biden recently described him as cogent and well-versed on the issues they discussed. “Sharp as a tack”, said one, according to Politico on Friday (26 March). Biden’s approach to building unity is to focus on moderate Republicans and the base of American voters. This is classic change theory – do not try to convert those most opposed to you, find the middle ground and build relationships there.
Press reports since Thursday suggest the press was taken somewhat by surprise by Biden’s approach. It was diametrically opposed of course to that of his predecessor, for whom he makes no attempt to conceal his contempt. His list of reporters wasn’t a “secret cheat sheet”, it and his notes were clearly visible. He was well briefed and prepared. Yes, he used notes for some things, yes once or twice he faded into incomprehensibility, yes, he clearly still has strategies for managing his stammer, yes, he is 78 years old and we hope and pray that he stays fit and healthy. But it is also clear that he is building an administration that does not completely depend on him. He doesn’t want everything to be all about him. I find that deeply reassuring. He is used to not being centre stage, to working collaboratively, to building respectful and candid relationships with his opponents and his competitors. But he is a politician and a democrat in every fibre of his being and it will be very interesting to watch how his relationships with the American people, with the Republicans, on the foreign stage and yes, with the press, play out in the months and years to come. I wasn’t looking for soundbites or fireworks. I just wanted reassurance that the US is back in safe hands and that is what I got. This is not a man likely to rush into a war on a whim. Where he had met or exceeded his targets, he is happy to share that. Where he has found himself unable to meet a target – on withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, he is equally relaxed sharing that. He is aiming for transparency, to make American lives better, to get things done. Sometimes that takes time, thought, a steady hand. I’m cool with that.
There were further clues, too, to his likely stance on UK and Irish matters. His great grandfather got onto a coffin ship because of what the Brits had done, he said. No doubt a headline summary of Biden family lore. That may tint the administration’s approach to the UK. The jingoistic Boris Johnson is not a good match as transatlantic partner, unfortunately, and his record on Ireland will not have won him extra brownie points to bring to the ‘special relationship’. Johnson’s approach to the range of live issues in Northern Ireland – including the legacy of the Troubles and the Brexit protocol -- has been woeful. He appears to quite simply not give a damn. And he has missed a major opportunity to collaborate with the Republic of Ireland – on the basis of the Common Travel Area, the practical issue of the border and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement – on Covid. According to Bloomberg, the chances of a much heralded US-UK trade deal before 2023 are now slim. We await with interest the choice of ambassadors to the UK and Ireland, and indeed the probable appointment of a special envoy to Northern Ireland. It is likely that the Biden administration will engage more intensely than any since Clinton’s with, for example, the debate on Irish unity and as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
This is what I think Biden will do: he will be focussed on the mid-term elections, when he will aim to consolidate the Democratic majorities and undermine any Trumpist influence. He will stick close to his election promises to build unity and make life better for all Americans. It will be much clearer by 2022 whether Trump has fizzled into insignificance in the face of lawsuits and criminal charges, and whether the GOP will manage to reconstruct itself. Then I expect him to move Kamala Harris closer to centre stage, to promote her credibility and mandate in case he chooses not to run again. But for now, there is a steady hand on the tiller. And I’m cool with that.