Times are tough for journalists in our nation’s capital. After four years of trying to keep up with a volatile, exasperating, endlessly entertaining president, they’re facing an acute shortage of news.
Cable TV ratings are down. Newspaper circulations are flagging. My younger son and his wife, both journos in D.C., are suddenly scrambling to find compelling stories. Washington has become … boring.
Blame our new president, the most low-key occupant of that office since Calvin Coolidge. A one-time Massachusetts governor and frequent Berkshires visitor, “Silent Cal” was so unobtrusive that he once sat for quite a while in East Lee’s general store, eating cheese and crackers, before being recognized. At a fancy dinner in the 1920s, a woman reportedly bet Coolidge she could get him to say more than two words. His response: “You lose.”
Joe Biden used to be a notoriously chatty guy, but after moving into the White House, he went full Coolidge. He has given only one news conference in his first 12 weeks, versus six for the Former Guy. Biden’s tweets are infrequent and tame. His speeches are focused and read mostly verbatim. The heights of Biden rhetoric rarely exceed the odd “here’s the deal.” He stutters.
Our new president doesn’t play golf with celebrities, or at all. He doesn’t travel much, doesn’t trade endearments with dictators or insults with anybody. He doesn’t call TV presenters to chat on air.
Republicans are outraged that Biden is no talk, all action. They’ve tried to make an issue out of his relative invisibility, his quiet diligence, his disdain for photo ops. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas did just that the other day in a tweet that ended, “Invites the question: Is he really in charge?”
Apparently. Biden may not dominate the news, but his more disciplined approach has given us the $1.9 trillion COVID relief act and an ambitious infrastructure proposal, a successful vaccination effort, stronger labor and environmental protections, a return to the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, as well as an end to the 20-year U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.
Ordinary folks seem to think he’s doing something right. His approval ratings are above the 50 percent mark, about 10 points higher than his predecessor’s. Some of Biden’s actions, like his response to the pandemic, score in the mid-60s. More than 90 percent of Democrats think he’s doing a good job. That’s more than voted for him.
Not bad for a man of 78 who spent much of the election campaign in his basement. It’s as if he has turned Mario Cuomo’s old adage upside down: Biden campaigned in prose and is governing in poetry.
But, is that enough? Shouldn’t a president be rallying us, inspiring us, entertaining us with something more emotive than poems? (Yes, I know. Poetry can be powerful, Biden likes to quote Yeats and this is National Poetry Month. But, still.)
If we have to ask that question, then the very definition of politics has changed. It used to be about solving problems, advancing the common weal and, if you did a good job, getting elected. Now, it’s about getting attention.
Some political scientists call this new approach “performative politics.” Instead of actually accomplishing things, elected officials nowadays focus on showy, hyperpartisan stunts to raise their personal profiles.
They take trips to the southern border to denounce the immigration situation, but offer no real proposals to fix it. They pick fights over Dr. Seuss books and transgender sports, but make no serious attempts to find common ground on anything. And common ground is what more than 80 percent of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, tell pollsters they want these days.
We’re talking mostly about one party here. The GOP has become a reality-show noise machine, focused on keeping folks angry and courting the favor of the Mar-a-Lago mauler. Some elected Republicans are merely hoping to avoid his unpredictable ire, which was unleashed recently on Senate leader Mitch McConnell for not trying harder to overturn the election. Others are angling for a job on Fox News, once they lose a primary election to an even more strident challenger.
Still others are vying for their idol’s mantle. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for instance, is positioning himself as a kind of mini-Donald Trump by pushing his state toward red-meat laws criminalizing protests, purging liberal professors and banning businesses from asking for proof of vaccination.
Other imitators are Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and the GOP’s latest hero, accused sex offender Matt Gaetz. “The chaos caucus,” former House Speaker John Boehner calls these shouters in his new memoir.
Democrats, too, can get performative over, say, police shootings or voting rights, but they quickly follow up with a 10-point program. Republicans have concluded, with some justice, that policy is boring. Conflict and intense partisanship are what gets a politician airtime.
Well, we all love a good show. But, after four years of preening and posturing, staged events and quickly forgotten controversies, it’s refreshing to have a president who cares more about governing than performing. We could get used to this.