What the President Was Supposed to Do All Along

Joe Biden’s minimalist version of the presidency could be a blessing in disguise.

Joe Biden
Mary Altaffer / AP Images

So much for imagination, it would seem. The Democratic Party electorate has chosen as its presidential nominee Joe Biden, a solid but unremarkable vice president for eight years, a man who has been running for this nomination on and off since 1988. He has defeated opponents calling for a universal basic income, midwestern common sense, generational transition, plans upon plans upon plans, and, finally, “political revolution.” He has done so, remarkably, without calling for much of anything himself. Victory, it seems, has gone to the candidacy of nothing.

That might sound like an insult, but I do not mean it that way. The imagination phase of the 2020 presidential campaign was interesting, but so too might be the ascent of Biden-esque minimalism. It might be just what American politics needs. It might even be good for the imagination of the American left.

What is a president for? Think about that word, president. When the authors of the Constitution decided on that word for the country’s chief executive, they lived in a world of kings and queens, regents and emperors. These were people who had to be addressed as your majesty and other such contrivances. Yes, the Framers needed a strong federal government, but not too strong. When they agreed to address America’s chief executive as Mr. President, it was something close to an insult: The person who merely presides—who sits at the head of the table and sets the appropriate tone while others actually get things done. The authors of the Constitution had only recently won an anti-royalist war and did not want another king.

Now look where America finds itself. The presidency hardly presides anymore; instead, it consumes us. The office, particularly with its present occupant, is a black hole that pulls inexorably on the public’s attention. We got here step by step: with Andrew Jackson’s media-savvy populism, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” through people’s living-room radios, with the nuclear football’s putting the option of world annihilation in the hands of a single person—the “leader of the free world,” he was called. Barack Obama modeled the use of executive orders for doing the work that Congress once did, and the embrace of executive power is on the rise in the judiciary. Once, it was appalling for a president to travel to a disaster zone, for fear of distracting from the relief work; now it is appalling if the president is anywhere else. The public’s attention is fixated on him, so if he failed to visit the scene, would we be allowed to notice it?

Joe Biden offers a different sort of presidency. He is not a small-government conservative, by any means—although his version of big-government liberalism might seem modest in comparison with Donald Trump’s rampant deficit spending. Biden offers, rather, the possibility of a presidency one can finally turn away from, a presider who will leave enough room for others to set the agenda. If Biden wins, and if his presidency is anything like his candidacy, Americans can expect a future of mild, friendly, adviser-powered competence, with just enough gaffes to remind us that the man at the top is still around.

I did not vote for Biden in my state’s primary, nor would I have bet on him to emerge as the Democratic nominee. But I find myself admiring the electorate’s instincts. The usual suspicion is that Democratic-primary voters tabled their own progressive hopes to choose the centrist white guy because they judged him more likely to win over some allegedly racist, sexist Trump voters. I have an alternative interpretation: What if the absence of hope-stirring progressivism from Biden and his virtual nonexistence on social media are actually his appeal? What if the American public is once again ready, finally, for a president who keeps himself to presiding? I am willing to have been wrong about Biden if that interpretation is right.

Biden’s candidacy of nothing may be especially helpful for confronting a global crisis such as COVID-19. The most effective responses to this crisis have been in places with less theatrical leaders—places including South Korea, Taiwan, and Germany. In contexts like that, genuine experts can be more easily heard. Expertise is important in addressing a problem as complex as a pandemic. The same is true with respect to reversing climate change and assembling a decent health-care system. These are all systemic challenges that require, above all, an appetite for collaboration and patience. An attention vacuum at the top also leaves space for less powerful people to organize, make themselves heard, and build strength.

If Democrats are to campaign now for the restoration of a presidency that merely presides, they should be sure that American society is ready for it. A quieter president will require a stronger society, one capable of relying on networked coordination—rather than someone’s iron will—to achieve great things. This means regaining long-lost skills for self-governance and mutual support—translating the old town meeting to the internet. This also means developing a new relationship with America’s much-maligned cadres of experts—trusting them with what they know, while also putting power in the hands of workers, patients, and others who don’t usually get credit for their expertise.

Progressive visionaries and activists have tended to support candidates more aggressive and attention-getting than Biden—candidates offering to back their agendas with the full might of executive overreach. But a Biden presidency could embolden activists even more by clearing space for them to advance their goals through their own power. The candidacy of nothing could lead to a presidency less centered on itself.