DURING THE FIRST hundred days of Joe Biden’s presidency, it has dawned on Republicans that the man their standard-bearer once mocked as “Sleepy Joe” is a formidable adversary. And the quality that has made him so effective up to this point is, well, his sleepiness. “I think Biden is a disaster for the country, and his ideas are an atrocity. But he’s boring. He’s just boring,” complained altmedia personality Dan Bongino. This frustration is not confined to the party’s entertainment wing. “It’s always harder to fight against a nice person because usually people will sort of give him the benefit of the doubt,” grumbled Senator John Cornyn. At a recent speech to donors, Donald Trump was reduced to mocking his successor as “Saintly Joe Biden,” perhaps the feeblest moment in his decades-long career of schoolyard taunts.
It’s not that Saintly Joe invented the prototype of a president who acts politely. Barack Obama was nice. George W. Bush was nice. Bill Clinton got away with it because he could be so charming. George H.W. Bush sent scads of handwritten notes to everybody from his favorite snack manufacturer to the presidential candidate who defeated him. Treating everybody with unfailing courtesy is (or was) standard advice for any aspiring politician.
Biden’s advantage is that he’s not just nice; he’s also tedious. He is relentlessly enacting an ambitious domestic agenda— signing legislation that could cut child poverty by more than half, expanding Obamacare, and injecting the economy with a stimulus more than twice the size of what Obama’s Congress passed in 2009— while arousing hardly any controversy. There’s nothing in Biden’s vanilla-icecream bromides for his critics to hook on to. Republicans can’t stop Biden because he is boring them to death.
Biden’s strategy of boringness is a fascinating counterpoint to a career spent trying desperately to be interesting. Biden used to overshare, with frequently disastrous results that led him to accurately self-diagnose as a “gaffe machine.” Whether his advanced age has slowed him down or made him wiser, he has finally given up his attention-seeking impulse and embraced the opposite objective. Biden’s success is a product of the crucial yet little-appreciated insight that substantive advances don’t require massive public fights. The drama of inspiration and conflict is not only unnecessary to promote change but even, in certain circumstances, outright counterproductive.
This method runs contrary to the DNA of the political-activism industry and the news media, which look at politics as a war and judge each side by how well it mobilizes its troops for combat. It especially offends the sensibility of many progressives, who see popular mobilization as the highest form of political organization.
Liberals have always categorized periods of conservative ascent as a kind of somnolence—bland, genial patriarchs like Reagan and Eisenhower tranquilizing the young. We likewise imagine our own political success as a triumph of mass participation. That kind of grassroots fervor did materialize on behalf of Obama in 2008. He and his supporters hoped they could convert that energy into a standing army he could tap to pressure Congress to enact his agenda.
Yet for all his policy successes, this ambition failed completely. Obama’s army demobilized after his election and did not return until four years later. The op-ed pages were filled with proposals written by despairing fans imagining just the right kind of rhetorical uplift Obama could deliver that would summon his crowds back to life. And he did deliver a lot of speeches, most of them—as one may expect of a president who was a successful author before going into politics—of excellent quality. None of this had any measurably positive effect on public opinion.
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