As a political communicator, President Joe Biden’s most effective moments often come spontaneously, when he is overcome with feeling, or by accident, when words that are intended to be private instead become public.
Biden’s bristling comment this week about Fox News reporter Peter Doocy was an entertaining example on both counts.
“What a stupid son of a bitch,” the president muttered, as though to himself, even as a hot mic assured that this sulfurous thought bubble did not stay with himself.
Biden later called the Fox correspondent for a conversation to “clear the air,” as Doocy described it. As the target of the insult, Doocy said Biden succeeded in doing just that.
The air between the reporter and the president, of course, is not the most important air that needs clearing from Biden’s perspective. It is the gap between the grand hopes Democrats had for his presidency a year ago and the present reality of a stalled agenda, a divided party, a rancid political culture and the haunting sense that he may not be quite up the task of turning all this around in time for 2022 and 2024 elections.
As it happens, Biden’s lapse of presidential decorum hints at a path toward restoring presidential vitality.
The whole encounter — including Doocy’s genial refusal to get all huffy about Biden’s flash of huffiness — was in its own way quite winning. It was also a reminder of how many memorable Biden moments feature casual profanity or bursts of authentic emotion amid the pervasive phoniness of contemporary politics.
There was the famous time when he whispered to President Barack Obama at a White House podium that the passage of health care reform was “a big fucking deal.” Or when he told an Iowa voter who pressed him on his ethical and physical fitness for the presidency that, “You’re a damn liar, man,” before challenging him to a pushup contest. Perhaps Biden’s most memorable moment during the fall 2020 presidential debates was when he responded to former President Donald Trump’s incessant interruptions by rasping, “Will you shut up, man?”
These exchanges offer a small window into a potential remedy for a big problem. Biden has spent his adult life seeking, and finally holds, an office which by many conventional standards he is poorly equipped to hold. The modern presidency at its core is a communications platform. Key to its power, for better and for worse, is its ability to dominate public conversation. A noxious example is the all-consuming grip Trump held on public attention. A more ennobling example is what Franklin D. Roosevelt meant when he said, “The presidency is not merely an administrative office. … All our great presidents were leaders of thought at a time when certain ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”
So the fact that Biden lacks the expressive gifts of most predecessors is a serious liability.
He can’t use a grand setting to make a statement designed to echo across generations, as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did when challenging communism at the Berlin Wall. Do you recall Biden’s address a few months ago to the United Nations? No, you don’t, because it was a compound of gassy banalities, organized around a string of rhetorical questions that recalled a high school valedictorian’s speech.
Last week’s two-hour news conference arguably blunted concerns about whether he lacks the endurance and mental acuity to spar with reporters. But the fact that his team spent the next day cleaning up his surplus candor — when he warned Russia against a Ukraine invasion but said a minor incursion might not be such a big deal — showed the perils of this format.
At the other extreme, a fiery moral summons has its own risks for Biden, who is by temperament an accommodater. When he said Republican efforts to limit voting access amount to “Jim Crow in the 21st Century,” some moderates in his own party warned he might be taking the comparison too far. When he journeyed to Capitol Hill to make closed-door remarks to Democrats to back him on the sweeping Build Back Better spending measure he failed to switch votes and the measure stalled.
How can a president lead with a voice that often fails demonstrably to persuade?
Whether Peter Doocy is a jerk does not count as one of those great national questions FDR was talking about when he described the clarifying power of the presidency.