A Better Way to Judge Joe Biden
Some of the qualities that produce a successful presidency don’t receive the attention they should.
Soon, we will be pelted by 100-day assessments of the Biden administration, sweeping claims spurred by the arrival of a round number. Then, before we’re ready, a crop of those who want to replace Joe Biden will ask to be measured for the job.
Before all of this starts, we have a window in which to think about what the presidency entails and what skills we should look for in those who have it or want it—with a little distance from the rooting interest for individuals that often warps our perspective.
In 2019, I wrote a book about the presidency, The Hardest Job in the World. To say the job is difficult is not an excuse; it's a warning. Presidents face high-stakes surprises and must prepare for them. I argued that we should think about this more than we do. After the book went to press, reality became its co-author: a global pandemic, an economic collapse, the largest protests in American history against racial inequality, and the nation's biggest cyberattack. Each crisis was too big and too real, impervious to diversion.
We are supposed to discuss what it means to be prepared for the presidency during campaigns, but we talk about other things. In the primaries, the conversation revolves around party litmus tests. The Democratic primary this past election, for example, was weighted toward skirmishes over small differences on health-care policy, and gave only cursory attention to national security, or the leadership and organizational skills needed to fight a pandemic or distribute a vaccine.
After the primaries, partisans promote a view of the job that—wouldn’t you know it—conforms to the shape of their nominee. Republicans convinced themselves in 2016, for example, that Donald Trump, as a businessman, would be perfect for a job that bears little resemblance to running a business, and that, to the extent it does, requires attributes precisely at odds with the ones Trump exhibited in his career.
So what should we be thinking about in this short window? I'll pick just three attributes, that don’t receive much attention. The first quality inspired this article: perspective. The American presidency is overwhelming. We ask too much of it, presidents try to do too much with it, and the number and complexity of its challenges keep growing. A White House team, led by the president, must set priorities.
We should ask whether a president, or someone who wants the job, has their eye on the most urgent issues of the moment—not just on what pundits, the opposition, or the most vocal members of their base want. Then, following Dwight Eisenhower's advice not to let attention to urgent matters crowd out the ability to think about important ones, we should ask whether a president or candidate has a system in place to tend to the important issues that require long-term thinking, because if that thinking doesn’t take place, it can’t be conjured up in the moment when a crisis hits.
The second attribute is related to the first. Does a president, or presidential candidate, know how to build a team? The presidency is not a solo job; it's an organization. The quality of the people a president hires shapes the quality of the decisions that a president will make, because they frame the options for those decisions. But a strong roster is just the start. A presidency requires an atmosphere in which bad information doesn't get buried, course correction is not considered a sin, and egos don’t get out of control. This requires a president to be what Apple’s Tim Cook calls a “heat shield” for employees: encouraging them to take risks, and taking the heat if a constituency is upset or something goes wrong. When a crisis hits, the habits of mind created during relatively placid periods will be vital. They can't be drawn upon if they don’t exist.
Finally: restraint. Our campaigns and media demand action. When the 100-day assessments start, we’ll spend a lot of time on what’s immediately visible. We should think more about what we don’t see, and the actions a president does not take—a partisan dig not made, a slower approach on one issue that allows attention and progress on another. Restraint is the key to prioritization.
This quality also shapes presidential psychology. The job includes acute moments of decision, but it also requires enduring the daily pressure of always being onstage and, more often than not, having to play a role for the public that is disconnected from a president’s feelings or thoughts. A healthy presidential brain has the restraint to maintain balance—tolerance to weather criticism, patience to let situations develop rather than stabbing after solutions, and comfort in uncertainty.
None of these attributes blots out the ones that are more frequently cited: decisiveness, vision, character, and the capacity to offer pastoral care in times of national pain. Hopefully, though, the seriousness of our recent crises will shift more attention to perspective, team-building ability, and restraint.
Choosing a president who exhibits these qualities is a particular challenge for the out-party at the moment, because the GOP is the only party that has a shot at designing its selection process to align with what the job requires. A nominating process that rewards expertise in delivering sick burns on Twitter, excellence in taking umbrage at perceived slights, or facility for manufacturing diversionary controversies is going to train a nominee in skills that will be useless on the job and possibly even antithetical to it.
Our thinking about the Biden presidency should not be based on evaluating its first 100 days, the metric left over from the start of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first administration. There are better measures of the job, and of those who aspire to hold it.