During his first overseas trip as chief executive, President Biden met with foreign leaders at the G-7 gathering in Cornwall, paid a visit to Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, attended the NATO and European Union conclaves in Brussels, and is scheduled to sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday. All that summiteering has put Biden somewhere he isn’t usually to be found: smack in the middle of every news cycle. For the past week, the president has been highly visible on the news channels — delivering speeches, taking questions from reporters, posing for photos. But when the trip ends this week, so, most likely, will Biden’s spell at the center of attention.
Five months into his presidency, it is clear that Biden has no need or wish to be in America’s face all the time. He isn’t gripped by a desperate craving to be seen and heard and talked about. After four years of a president whose narcissism was bottomless and exhausting, and, before him, eight years of a president who also didn’t suffer from any lack of vanity, Biden’s willingness to stay largely behind the scenes is not just refreshing, but downright admirable.
But I vigorously applaud his determination to break with the pattern of recent presidents and not seek to dominate public life or drive the daily conversation. Unlike Barack Obama and especially unlike Donald Trump, Biden is content to stay out of public view and not make himself or his thoughts each day’s top story. He doesn’t comment on every political development. He doesn’t give daily briefings. He doesn’t weigh in on every Washington dispute. As Peter Nicholas wrote in The Atlantic, the Biden White House has made the “conscious calculation that people don’t need — or want — to hear from the president on an hour-by-hour basis.”
It would be a fine thing if Biden’s low-profile approach stems from a resolve to actively dial back the monarchical tendency that has overtaken the presidency in recent decades. A century ago, when the canny and accomplished Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, the cult of presidential personality had not yet taken hold. “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man,” Coolidge wrote. Contrary to popular myth, Coolidge was not a silent sphinx; in fact, he gave more speeches than any of his predecessors. But he grasped that when it comes to presidential verbiage, less is more. “The words of the President have an enormous weight,” he remarked in his autobiography, “and ought not to be used indiscriminately.”
Is it possible that Biden, after a long and loquacious career in politics, has come around to that insight? During the presidential campaign, while Trump tweeted furiously and delivered self-absorbed stem-winders at large political rallies, Biden spent most of his time at home in Delaware. He endured a fair amount of “Where’s Joe?” mockery, but it didn’t keep him from winning the election. Perhaps he and his advisers have concluded that staying out of the spotlight will continue to work to his benefit, both by demonstrating how different he is from Trump and by minimizing opportunities for the gaffes to which he himself says he is prone.
Some Republicans continue to mock Biden’s restraint. Senator John Cornyn of Texas jabbed the president because his tweets are so “limited” and “unimaginably conventional.” Columnist Kurt Schlichter ridicules the president’s style as one of “no energy, no drive, no hope.” Much was made of the fact that Biden waited two months before holding his first press conference.
But boring tweets and infrequent press conferences are no bad thing, particularly after the experience of a president whose pursuit of public attention was so relentless. Whatever Biden’s shortcomings, he is reminding Americans that a president’s job description needn’t include putting on a constant show, venting personal emotions, and keeping the public riled up. For 20 years, each new president has proved more polarizing than his predecessor. Given the state of US politics, it wouldn’t be easy for any president to break that pattern. But Biden is doing something no president has done for decades. He’s avoiding the limelight, and that’s no small achievement.