Steven V. Roberts: Are we going to be fine?

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 28, 2022

“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘president senator.’ They want me to be the president and let senators be senators,” President Biden said at his recent press conference. “If I made a mistake, I’m used to negotiating to get things done, and I’ve been, in the past, relatively successful at it in the United States Senate, even as vice president. But I think that role as president is — is a different role.”

Yes, it is, and a recent Gallup poll reflects the impact of Biden’s mistake. Only 37% view him as “a strong and decisive leader,” down from 46% in September 2020. Thirty-eight percent say he “can manage the government effectively,” a drop of 14 points in 16 months. The fate of Biden’s presidency rests on his ability to learn from his errors, to reverse those results and restore public confidence in his leadership.

What does it mean to be more presidential and less senatorial? There are two related answers. The first one, Biden believes, is to be more visible — to speak more directly to voters. “I have not been out in the community nearly enough,” says the president. “I’m going to get out of this place more often. I’m going to go out and talk to the public.”

That is a good start. It shows that Biden might be grasping the profound difference between legislative and executive leadership.

The best lawmakers paint in pastel colors. They avoid the limelight, blurring their profile in the search for compromise. They blunt edges instead of sharpening them. Effective executives are the opposite: using bright strokes, not pale ones. They must chart their own path and set their own goals.

This is why legislators have usually made poor presidential candidates. Out of 45 previous presidents, only three — Warren Harding, John Kennedy and Barack Obama — were sitting senators on the day they were elected. Some of the best lawmakers I’ve ever covered — Bob Dole, Howard Baker, John McCain — flamed out pursuing the White House. Remember, Biden was a disaster the first two times he ran as an incumbent lawmaker.

If you look at those 45 presidential bios, two words stand out: “governor” and “general.” What they had in common was the experience of command. Dwight Eisenhower was the only general elected in the 20th century, but 12 other presidents served as flag officers. From 1976 through 2008, four presidents — Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush 43 — had been governors.

Biden has never run anything before. He’s never made decisions on his own. Even as vice president, he carried out someone’s else priorities. Can he make the switch from a senatorial to a presidential mindset?

The second question is what he says when he gets out of Washington. Right now, the country is in a profoundly negative mood. Voters focus on schools closed, not vaccines delivered; on inflation rates, not job numbers; on bills that have failed, not ones that have passed. That’s why 72% tell NBC the country is headed in the “wrong direction.”

Biden says his task is “to go out and make the case in plain simple language as to what it is we have done, what we want to do and why we think it’s important.” True, but he hasn’t done that so far. Ronald Reagan’s goals could be summed up in six words: smaller government, stronger defense, lower taxes. What are Biden’s six words — or 106 words — that define his values?

For all the challenges Biden faces, he has two opportunities, as well. One is the crisis in Ukraine. When it comes to world affairs, he generally doesn’t have to worry about his slim margin in the Senate, or what Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema think. He can act as a leader, not a lawmaker, representing the whole nation to the whole world.

His second opportunity is to travel the country and play to his strength: his ability to connect with people on a personal level and convey sympathy and support for their struggles. In the Gallup poll, 60% still consider him “likeable,” and he has to build on that.

One highlight of his first year happened during a February town hall meeting in Milwaukee. Speaking with 8-year-old Layla Salas and her mother, both nervous about catching COVID-19, Biden told the child, “Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine.”

If Biden is going to rebound, he has to convince more Americans of those words: “Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine.”

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is “Cokie: A Life Well Lived.” He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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