Pictures of Joe Biden giving speeches and handshaking foreign dignitaries during his ongoing trip to Europe will take place in the news next week. But when he returns to the United States, the pattern that has prevailed for the past five months is likely to resume.
Which means the president is disappearing again.
It was common for Democrats during the 2020 presidential campaign to speak encouragingly about how boring a Biden administration would be in comparison to the non-stop cycle of chaos, cruelty, and insurgency that prevails under President Trump. Where Trump tweeted biased provocations day and night, journalists and pundits furiously wrote, analyzed and condemned 24/7, life during a Biden presidency would return to normal at a slower pace, and the president withdrew from public view and allows other people and topics to spread, and the public life of our nations to settle and heal, perhaps even with a degree of unity that returns.
Yet the nation has not calmed down. On the contrary, the virtual wars that have plagued the country over the past four years have continued. The primary difference is that the president plays very little role in them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it is not very encouraging either. In fact, it points to deeper cultural and political changes that set the framework for the presidency.
In addition to the desire to do the opposite of Trump, there are several strong arguments that the president plays a minor role in our policies. Treating the president like a monarch is not healthy for a democracy, so anything that reduces his role is good. A less prominent leader of the executive might allow power to flow back to Congress or the states and away from the imperial presidency. A largely invisible president is less likely to whip up war hysteria.
Then there is the case of returning to the original view of the president as standing above politics. Perhaps the best way for a president to rise above the struggle of the political struggle is that he less frequently intervenes in partisan disputes by remaining largely silent when they rage around him.
Like I said, these are strong arguments. But do they relate to the world we actually live in? I am reminded of Aristotle’s tendency to separate arguments that are “true quite simply” from those that are true in certain concrete situations. If we could start the country again from scratch, knowing how we ended up, it might be a good idea to redouble our efforts to avoid the presidency taking on the role it did during the 19th and 20th centuries. century. But given how the story actually unfolded, I wonder if any of these ideal arguments relate.
Throughout most of the 20th century, the president was immediately the leader of the executive branch, the leader of a political party and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, who would occasionally speak to the nation as a whole and be treated as its titular leader. Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, Urban or Rural, Man or Woman, White or Black or Brown When the President spoke to the nation, especially in times of crisis, the overwhelming majority of Americans would listen with respect, convinced that he spoke for and from the whole country. In this regard, the original notion of an extra-political president continued to exist along with the more political roles he would also play.
This continued, although the parties became more ideologically polarized – and the country as a whole more centerless – in recent decades. In a country divided by party, class, race, education, region, culture, religion, entertainment, news sources and countless other differences, the president was the person who could be at the center of our national life and speak to us all as part of a larger whole. Even George W. Bush and Barack Obama could still do this occasionally.
But not Donald Trump. No president has demanded and received more attention from more Americans, and no president so steadfastly refused to speak equally to all Americans. (Not even Lincoln, who often spoke with great respect for those who had withdrawn and gone to war with the Union.) Trump was a tribal partisan all the way down, treating those who did not vote for him almost as second-class. citizens, as personal enemies as well as enemies of his followers and their vision of the United States and its history.
Thus, Trump both managed to be at the center of our national lives as much as any president has ever done and to greatly intensify our centerlessness. It was all of Trump, all the time, with one’s love or hate for him that formed the core and often the sum of most people’s political identities.
Biden is right in wanting to reverse this – and probably correctly believing that he could not do so by trying to match or even approach Trump’s levels of ubiquity in our national lives.
The question is whether fading in the background is likely to help. If the root of the problem is centerlessness, it’s hard to see how it could. It is true that an absent president avoids polarizing the country further, but it does not exactly bring the country together either.
What we have instead is a vacuum at the center of our public life that is filled with more noise than ever. Many days we feel like leaders, flying apart in a million directions, going into figurative fist fights on the deck of the American state ship, without anyone having the broad-based legitimacy to jump in, take responsibility, and restore order and community comity.
The question now is whether anyone at this point could speak for and to the nation as a whole. Perhaps the truth is that no one could, at least absent, an undeniable external threat to pull us together because Trump took us beyond the point of not returning to our centerlessness.
In that case, Biden’s invisible presidency could be the best thing he or anyone else can do in the situation – a political adoption of the basic principle that guides doctors in their treatment of sick patients: Do not hurt.