It’s Great to Have a President Who Knows When to Shut Up

From a New York Times guest essay by Matthew Yglesias headlined “It’s Great to Have a President Who Knows When to Shut up”:

President Biden’s communications strategy, if there was a strategy at all, during the recent debt ceiling showdown baffled allies and infuriated Democratic Party stalwarts.

While Speaker Kevin McCarthy blitzed Fox News and funneled daily doses of spin through the Capitol Hill tipsheets, the White House was publicly saying and doing very little — so little that it felt like basically nothing. Backbench House Democrats, progressive Twitter and liberal advocacy groups exhorted Mr. Biden to insist on a straightforward debt-ceiling increase by the G.O.P. House, but braced themselves for the worst: A tired, timid, too-moderate, too-ineffectual president with his head stuck in the distant past was about to get fleeced by the rabid right.

Yet what emerged from intense talks at the White House was a deal that turned out to be surprisingly — almost shockingly — favorable to Mr. Biden’s supporters. Somehow, the seemingly floundering White House pulled off a negotiating coup.

This happened, at least in part, because Mr. Biden understands something fundamental about congressional politics that’s frustrating to journalists, activists and political junkies: It’s often better to just shut up.

In many ways he embodies what is an unusual model of the presidency in our media age. Rather than seek out and suck up the country’s attention at every possible turn, he recognizes and embraces the limited tools of his office within our constitutional system — and is all the more effective for it.

Presidents facing legislative roadblocks are invariably urged to do more, to say more, to use the bully pulpit more. There’s a reason fictional presidents are written that way. The dramatic speech or confrontation makes for good storytelling in a way that a drawn-out, incremental, closed-door — in short, boring — negotiation never could.

Politics at its best just isn’t necessarily all that entertaining. That is the insight President Biden brought to the office. This is no guarantee of public approval or a second term, but the contrast between a president who used to play a dealmaker character on television and one who used to make deals in Congress is striking and important.

In the negotiations around the debt ceiling, Mr. McCarthy and his G.O.P. caucus did not come away with nothing for their trouble. A reduction in spending, disproportionately tilted to nonmilitary budget items, is a real win for the right. Mr. McCarthy and his allies argued for, and won, concessions on work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps).

When the president was asked by reporters for comment after the terms of the deal were settled but before the congressional vote, he said that what “I hear some of you guys saying is, ‘Why doesn’t Biden say what a good deal it is?’ Why would Biden say what a good deal it is before the vote? You think that’s going to help me get it passed? No. That’s why you guys don’t bargain very well.”

Bragging that most of what the Republicans won was either stuff Mr. Biden favors or stuff they would have gotten in about two months during the regular-order budget process would have undercut Mr. McCarthy’s standing with his own caucus and encouraged Republicans to jump ship and force the country into economic crisis.

To partisan supporters, it was disconcerting, while it was happening, to see and hear so little from the White House — a striking contrast not only to Donald Trump’s manic tweeting but to Barack Obama’s more dignified but always high-wattage rhetorical presence. And yet Mr. Biden came away with a deal that does less to sacrifice his priorities than, for example, the one Mr. Obama settled for in 2011, in which a budget sequester limited spending and therefore the government’s ability to lift an economy still struggling after the Great Recession.

“Obama liked to win the argument,” one Democratic senator told me months ago in describing Mr. Biden’s successes at securing bipartisan wins out of narrow congressional majorities, “which didn’t always serve him well.”

The one real concession Mr. McCarthy won from Mr. Biden is to scale back planned increases in I.R.S. funding, a change that the Congressional Budget Office says will lead to more debt rather than less (presumably by letting people cheat on their taxes more). On the merits, for a deficit- and debt-reducation package, this is absurd. But the G.O.P. heart wants what it wants, and to get a deal, Mr. Biden quietly worked with Republicans’ real desires rather than trying to subject them to ridicule in public.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Mr. Biden has a somewhat unusual résumé for a president: long-serving senator. Handling negotiations with Congress is a major part of any president’s job, but the structure of the political system, and of presidential elections, discourages the kind of people who’d be good at this from serving in the White House. Instead, the current system rewards skill at attracting attention only to put the winner in a job where this skill has little practical value.

There’s a strong preference for fresh faces, charismatic outsiders, dynamic personalities and big speechmakers. John Kennedy with his charisma, good looks and soaring oratory has always been a more beloved figure than his successor, the dour but effective Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Biden doesn’t have L.B.J.-scale congressional majorities, and so it makes sense that he has to settle for more modest legislation.

Mr. Biden’s low-key persona often frustrates his supporters — both progressives who want to see a punchier presence and moderates who’d like to see a forceful Bidenism drown out the voices of the farther left. But with partisan bills like the 2021 stimulus and the Inflation Reduction Act as well as bipartisan ones like the infrastructure law, the CHIPS and Science Act, a modest gun control bill and now a deficit reduction deal, a lot has gotten done because what happens in Congress is driven by nurturing interactions there, and not by the daily war for attention on cable and social media.

Even with his approval rating sagging, Mr. Biden does not inspire the kind of fervent hatred that motivated opponents of powerful communicators like Mr. Trump or Mr. Obama a quietly significant advantage in a polarized age.

Looking ahead to his re-election, Mr. Biden will need to sell his achievements. That is where his skills are more limited; on the campaign trail, he would benefit from a more commanding communication style.

Still, it would be nice to see some broader appreciation for his legislative insights and presidential model. He has defied a lot of the pop culture image of what a masterful president should look like by applying insights obtained from an extremely long career as a legislator. As Mr. Biden is showing, his subdued style can produce potent results.

Matthew Yglesias, the author of “One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger,” writes at Slow Boring.

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