Joe Biden has a real shot at being a boring president. It will require constant work. Many forces of commerce and human nature are arrayed against him, and countless obstacles stand in his path. But if the country is lucky, entire days will pass without the president's activities agitating the public mind.
Success in the presidency can be measured in many ways. After Donald Trump, a new one might be the ability to thin the ranks of the agog. We need a president who can reset the norms of the office and address our current crisis over the nature of truth, giving the public the information it deserves. Biden can show those who didn't vote for him that he respects them enough to seek to persuade, rather than drowning them out with untested assertions.
Calvin Coolidge famously set out to be boring. According to his secretary, he did not wish to “go ahead of the majestic army of human thought and aspiration, blazing new and strange paths.” As he prepared to leave office, the 30th president boasted, “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been the minding of my own business.”
But the boredom that this moment calls for is not the monotony of a limited agenda, nor the purposeful dullness of placidity. Biden will have to manage historic challenges. The ride will be bumpy. Plus, he's loaded reams of executive orders and legislation into the chute for immediate dispersal when he moves to the other side of the Resolute Desk.
It is precisely because his to-do list is so long that boredom is required. I'm using the term in the same sense as Leon Panetta, who I interviewed about the presidency a few years ago. "A rational, experienced president is going to be very, very boring,” said the former defense secretary, CIA director, and White House chief of staff.
Panetta's remark came as a preamble to a discussion of the skills and attributes required to master the modern presidency: prioritizing what is important, not what is consuming the Twitter hive mind; avoiding dead-end fights with opponents trying to bait you; and focusing on the distant consequences of immediate action, or distant problems that can only be addressed by planning today. Like, say, a pandemic.
A president who tries to fit this mold might not keep the country riveted, but he will be effective. A presidency based on ratings or the trill of the news alert, by contrast, is as distinct from the vital requirements of the job as The Apprentice was from the habits of effective corporate governance, or The Bachelor is from nurturing relationships.
Such a presidency would return the executive branch to its role of informing the public. Briefings, charts, and a parade of forgettable public officials can explain to the citizens of the country—or, more likely, their representatives in the press—what is being done in their name. America showed a distinct preference for this approach during the pandemic. Governors who simply laid out what they knew became heroes. Anthony Fauci inspired such blooming affection throughout the land by explaining what he knew—and where he’d been wrong—that people planted signs thanking him in front of their azalea bushes.
The public craves information. This is the basic lesson of CDC guidelines and emergency-management books: Information, even when it ultimately proves flawed, gives people a sense of control over their lives.
As we saw during the Trump administration, holding a press conference is not the same as informing the public. It is possible, it turns out, to achieve a net reduction in public knowledge with a press conference. Instead, a boring administration must put governing ahead of campaigning, using information to instruct, educate, and build on accumulated knowledge, and not to spin and create a politically favorable refuge. Governing prioritizes science and durable facts, while campaigning prefers flimflam. The only objective of campaigning is surviving the next news cycle, while governing is good for actual survival.
No presidency will be free of political interest or confirmation bias, but a presidency that puts persuasion over assertion, facts over piffle, has a chance to achieve real successes. In the Trump years, where the lie was the president's basic unit of measurement, fantasy pushed out reality. But while assertion thrilled the crowds at rallies, it did no good against the coronavirus, or in restoring economic confidence. Insisting that it’s safe to return to bars and restaurants might convince the home team, but boosting consumer confidence requires persuading the entire country. Lots of people need more than CAPS LOCK when the hospital-admittance rate is going up like a hockey stick.
The habits of the Enlightenment, like proportioning the evidence to the size of the claim, delivered us things like electricity and penicillin. Returning to them now won't work immediate wonders, but it will make a difference.
The great battle of our time is the fight between reality and fantasy. Election officials, judges, experts in the field, and Trump officials with actual knowledge about such matters all agreed that the 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Nevertheless, the president and the majority of his party asserted a different reality. Thousands showed up to do battle for that position. Fantasy propelled an insurrection.
As the historian Jill Lepore points out, the January 6 insurrection highlights the stakes of our current epistemological crisis. The American experiment was founded on the idea that knowledge could be accumulated, analyzed, and acted upon, that problems and threats could be dispersed with brainpower. Thomas Jefferson, in his inaugural address, waved away those who would promote disunion or challenge republican government “as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” At the moment, reason could use a hand.
A just-the-facts-ma’am presidency would return to an important American tradition: Presidents are supposed to cool public passions, not inflame them. As James Madison wrote in “Federalist No. 49,” if a president whips up the crowd, “the passions … not the reason, of the public would sit in judgment. But it is the reason, alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government. The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government.”
President Truman reaffirmed this principle during his tenure: “You can’t divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”
We have seen the harm in the partisanship that prevented Republican leaders from disputing that the election was stolen, even though they knew it wasn't and knew what damage that lie could do. An argument for inching the presidency away from fantasy, is obligated not to engage in the fantasy that facts can provide a solvent to tribalism. Even the most exquisitely boring president will not be able to use facts, briefings, and patient explanations to fully overcome the incentives of politics and partisan media. At the moment, as McKay Coppins writes, those incentives are encouraging Republicans to pretend they "didn't see the tweet" of the entire Trump presidency, so that they can continue playing to the same base.
However, we have seen what the other route brings. If a president is ever to build bridges to the other party, it will not be through insults and baseless assertions that must be taken on faith. That president must help those lawmakers make a case to their constituency. The apocalyptic image of the Biden administration held by many conservatives is at least one barrier to their ability to do so. One way Biden can soften that image is to show voters who did not support him that he cares enough about what they think to seek to persuade and explain to them.
In the end, the biggest reason to be boring is that surprises are coming. Sticking to the basic, unexciting requirements of the job prepares a president for the excitement ahead. In 2001, President George W. Bush's staff talked about how he was going to be an A4 president, not always in the center of the day's news on page A1 of the newspaper. Then the attacks of 9/11 put him on A1 for the remainder of his two terms. A White House needs to plan for that day, establish orderly operating routines, and allow staff to work unclenched by the fear that the boss is going to ping-pong off in some zany direction. Boring!
If you have read this far, I have not bored you—or, perhaps, you have found boredom interesting. This is good news. We, too, have to play our part in lowering the temperature of our current political moment. We could do with fewer hot takes, more suppleness in our public debates, and a recognition that the president's job is not necessarily defined by whatever we just read, or even whatever is pelting us in the news cycle.
Sometimes, by staying out of the way, a president can create space for our attention to turn elsewhere.