Biden’s Style Belies Ambitions Beyond Undoing Trump Legacy

The new U.S. president starts his days with an early morning workout in the gym of the White House residence, watching MSNBC or CNN, and ends them at a reasonable hour often with a bowl of Breyers chocolate chip ice cream.

He doesn’t read Twitter unless someone shows him a tweet, and the posts at his own accounts are written by other people and almost never make news. He pores through briefing books, his aides say, beginning about 7:30 a.m. on weekdays, and receives an intelligence briefing most every day.

He requires masks in the White House. His interactions with reporters and his public appearances are limited and stage-managed -- and even then, there are stumbles that require clean-up by his staff.

Both in policy and in style, Joe Biden has moved rapidly to shape the presidency in his own image, drawing obvious contrasts -- often, deliberately -- with his mercurial predecessor, Donald Trump. He is determined not to occupy as much space on the front-burners of American minds.

In turn, Americans are responding positively. He had a 60% overall approval rating in an AP-NORC poll released this week, and a 70% approval rating for his handling of the pandemic.

But Biden’s unobtrusive presidency masks his desire to dramatically reshape the country -- ambitions that extend well beyond simply erasing Trump’s legacy or reviving Barack Obama’s agenda.

Already, he has challenged Congress to pass what would be the second-largest stimulus in U.S. history to snuff out the pandemic, as well as an immigration overhaul that could lead to millions of undocumented people gaining citizenship. Soon to come: a multi-trillion dollar plan to construct roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure projects across the country, remake the energy and manufacturing sectors and potentially rewrite the tax code.

He has taken early steps targeting racial inequality and climate change, two of the most divisive issues. And he has broadly wielded presidential power, issuing 54 executive orders and other actions during his first five weeks in office -- more than any other president in the same span.

Biden’s voters “didn’t send him here to be a placeholder,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in an interview. “They didn’t send him here to take small measures. They sent him here to beat a pandemic that’s killed 500,000 people and to reverse a record of economic failure and to start to deal with our climate crisis and our racism crisis.”

On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers who once hoped for a partner in a president who entered office preaching “unity” are beginning to suspect there will be few actual opportunities for bipartisan gains. Biden’s own party has begun to splinter along familiar faults between liberals and moderates, who enjoy outsize influence in the Senate.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican regarded as persuadable in the White House, has already met twice with the new president.

“You get the sense, the distinctive sense that he wants to be an active part of getting there,” she said, referring to bipartisan agreement. “Just because he understands how, I guess, how the sausage is made more, you could see that he could push the right buttons, so to speak, rather than, you know, President Trump maybe trying to get things done from an executive standpoint.”

But she added: “I’m not sure what’s going to come of” the meetings.

Six weeks into his presidency, Biden has yet to sign a single piece of legislation despite his desire to move quickly -- let alone the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that’s been his administration’s focus. Though he’d initially planned to address a joint session of Congress in February, like all of his recent predecessors, the timing has slipped as he waits for the stimulus to pass.

The closely divided Senate and Trump’s second impeachment trial have put the confirmation of Biden’s cabinet well behind schedule. Just 13 out of 23 cabinet members are in place, compared to 18 of 22 for Trump at the same point in his presidency.

Khashoggi Cleanup

At 78, Biden is the oldest first-term U.S. president in history. While aides less than half his age insist that Biden outworks them, the president sometimes misreads his teleprompter or injects inadvertent inaccuracies into his remarks. His staff had to publicly correct him after a misstatement last weekend.

After the administration released an unredacted intelligence report a week ago blaming the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and sanctioned Saudi officials for the murder, Biden twice said that additional U.S. actions to punish the kingdom would be coming “Monday.”

An administration official clarified that the only thing coming Monday were more details about the sanctions that had already been announced.

At a CNN town hall earlier in February, Biden broke the news that the administration had invoked the Defense Production Act to speed vaccine distribution. But he misspoke, calling the law the “National Defense Act.”

Much of the next day’s press briefing was spent explaining what Biden had meant the night before.

But Biden’s age confers advantages as well: He has immense confidence in his own command of the federal government and his familiarity with Congress, and he enjoys long relationships with many lawmakers in both parties.

At an Oval Office meeting with a bipartisan group of mayors and governors last month, Biden responded sharply after one participant offered a suggestion on passing the pandemic relief bill through the Senate.

The president said that he would handle the politics of the legislation, and that he had brought the state and local leaders to the White House to talk about the virus response in their areas and how the federal government could help.

Jeff Williams, the Republican mayor of Arlington, Texas, said Biden made the comment “in jest” and that he and the other elected officials didn’t take offense.

“Everybody laughed when they realized, ‘you’re right, what are we doing talking to him about the politics side?’ And everybody respected that and went back to the substance,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat, said.

The White House has meanwhile moved quickly on requests from congressional, state and municipal leaders, especially regarding the pandemic, they say.

Speeding Vaccinations

Less than a week after the meeting with Biden and expressing concerns about vaccine distribution in his area, Miami’s Republican mayor, Francis Suarez, got a call from the administration to let him know that a federal mass vaccination site would be opening in Miami-Dade County, he said. After House Majority Whip James Clyburn recommended that Biden use federally qualified health centers for vaccinations, the administration announced a policy to make it happen in just a few days.

“Not in a week. They did it over the weekend,” Clyburn said.

Biden entered office declaring that his top priority would be to curb the pandemic, and he has publicly shown a White House almost exclusively focused on the task.

Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, became the president’s top medical adviser. Near-daily Covid-19 briefings resumed. The president hardly goes a day without discussing the state of the pandemic and the U.S. vaccination effort, and he has made a point of wearing a mask almost anytime he’s in public, even though he has received both doses of the Pfizer Inc. vaccine.

There have been moments when he’s relaxed his precautions: Biden invited the governors of Michigan and Wisconsin to ride with him in the presidential limousine when he visited their states, for example.

Biden speaks frequently of the pandemic’s death toll in his public appearances, offering another contrast to Trump, who struggled to show empathy and rarely mentioned the human tally.

“He’s seen some very tough things over the course of his life,” Klain said. “He has a centering, an emotional solidness that comes from having experienced triumph and tragedy that I think makes him so well suited to be president at this time.”

Biden marked a half-million U.S. dead with a solemn ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, lining a staircase Trump famously climbed upon his return from hospitalization for Covid-19 with dozens of candles representing the lost lives.

“The day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye. It will come. I promise you,” he said at the Feb. 22 event. “My prayer for you, though, is that day will come sooner rather than later.”

The pandemic limited Biden’s in-person interactions during his campaign, but vaccination has helped him resume some of the folksy behavior that’s core to his public persona.

The president has leaned on intimacy in his White House meetings, holding almost all of them in the Oval Office. Several people who also visited the White House during previous administrations said they’d never been inside the office before Biden, a gesture they interpreted as a sign of respect.

Negotiating Failure

Still, Biden has not shown much progress on a core promise of his presidential campaign: what he described as a singular ability to work across the aisle.

Entreaties from 10 Senate Republicans to compromise on the stimulus legislation resulted in a single meeting with the president and some follow-up memos. Now, each side blames the other for the failure of negotiations.

Biden’s advisers have sought to define bipartisanship broadly, pointing to polls that show many Republicans in support of the pandemic relief bill in addition to most Democrats. What’s important to voters, they say, is not a show of cooperation with Biden’s political opponents but rapid results.

“He has kept his promises that he made as a candidate. He is proceeding to govern the way he believes a president should lead,” senior adviser Anita Dunn said. “Nobody should be surprised at how President Biden is conducting himself because it’s exactly what he said he would do.”

JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon, who together with four other major business leaders spent 90 minutes with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in February, said he found the president engaged and focused.

“You got a sense from him that he really did want to hear from you and wasn’t just going through the motions of bringing in business because that’s the thing that the president’s supposed to do,” Dimon said.

But Dimon indicated he is reserving judgment for Biden’s results.

“You can do infrastructure well or do it badly. It can never be about just getting a bill,” he said. “What’s key always is focusing on competent government as opposed to simply just governing, making decisions.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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