NOVEMBER 30, 2021
Meyerson on TAP
Biden the Silent
The Democrats’ ‘messaging problem’ is partly due to Biden’s avoidance of the biggest bully pulpit, one only a president can use.
My colleague Bob Kuttner has a terrific piece up today on how Democrats should navigate today’s troubled political waters, commending Sens. Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown, as well as that onetime senator who now resides in the White House, for getting it essentially right. What unites this trio, Bob writes, is their advocacy for progressive populist economic reforms, their opposition to the financialization and corporatization of American life, and their support for social as well as economic justice—but situating that support within an affirmation of the nation’s best traditions rather than treating those traditions as trash.

The course Bob lays out is one that the Democrats have to follow if they’re to have a viable future, which requires winning back a number of the working-class voters—of all races—who haven’t seen much on offer or much they can identify with from the Democrats in recent decades. And the Democrat who most needs to heed Bob’s counsel is none other than that White House resident.

Because of the myriad critiques that Democrats are leveling at their own party these days as they analyze Biden’s sinking poll numbers—he’s too left, he’s not left enough, he’s too timid, and so on—the one that most resonates with me is that he’s too silent.

Who, after all, has dominated the news in defining what’s in the Build Back Better bill? It’s not Biden; it’s Joe Manchin, who opines almost daily on its size, while seldom getting around to discussing its particulars, since they’re wildly popular. To be sure, Biden has gone on the road to speak at events that highlight one or another of those particulars, but these generally non-prime-time appearances haven’t really made a dent in the media’s simplified portrayal of the bill as a big spending package.

What Biden hasn’t done is seize the bully pulpit as only a president can. Last week, my colleague David Dayen, in writing about how corporations are hiking their profit margins under the cover of inflation and supply-chain gridlock, noted that JFK, when confronted with an inflationary price hike from U.S. Steel, secured national prime-time all-network coverage of an address he delivered from the Oval Office attacking the company for raising the cost of living despite its pledge not to.

Yes, I know, there are now somewhere between 300 and a gazillion networks and streaming services rather than the three that dominated the airwaves and the national discussion in JFK’s time. Nonetheless, a prime-time Oval Office address would at least command the attention of anyone watching the legacy networks and the news networks. It still provides presidents with the biggest megaphone available to them. And Biden has yet to use it.

It’s time he did, to spell out what’s actually in both the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better. It will soon be time he went the prime-time route to make the case for the voting rights legislation that will come before the Senate early next year, in which he will have to talk about why voting rights are more fundamental to maintaining a democracy than the Senate’s filibuster rule.

He can make those cases in his State of the Union address early next year, but that in itself won’t suffice. His ongoing avoidance of a prime-time Oval Office talk with the nation, which has helped enable his intraparty adversaries to block his agenda, has been an abdication of presidential power and responsibility that has played a major role in bringing down both his standing and his party’s.

There’s been a good deal of talk around town (D.C., of course) that Biden’s counselors are wary of putting him in that kind of national spotlight for fear that he’ll flub his lines. That may be a reasonable fear, but in avoiding that risk, Biden is also forfeiting the reward that comes from selling his program and dominating the discourse. That’s a helluva lot for a president, and his party, to forfeit.

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The Biden Paradox
The elements of Joe Biden’s program are phenomenally popular, yet his approval ratings keep sinking. BY ROBERT KUTTNER
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