It’s been quiet – refreshingly quiet for so many weeks that the constant bombardment of the past four years is rapidly fading into the distance. This is the result of a conscious decision by Joe Biden to govern as the antithesis of his predecessor. Gone is the relentless assault by an outrage machine that reflected Donald Trump’s psyche and his strategy of channeling the anger of his supporters. That outrage continues in the right wing media ecosystem, but denied the amplification of the Bully Pulpit it has been brushed off center stage, replaced by the relative normalcy of an administration that values professionalism over drama.
Look no further than the way the Capitol insurrection is rapidly being normalized as the immediate dangers it posed fade into memory. For quick reference, only 120 days ago Congress was under siege and the lives of the vice president and congressional leaders were under threat by a mob incited by the last president to stop the certification of his electoral loss. Four months isn’t a particularly long time to go from an attack on the constitutional republic to business as usual, but that’s essentially what’s happening as the acute phase of the insurrection gives way to the slower and less visible process of investigations and arrests. If the past four years taught anything, it’s that it wouldn’t take much for Democrats to keep the temperature elevated through daily expressions of righteous anger at Republicans who supported or enabled the rebellion. But Democrats, following the lead of the administration, have calculated that a campaign of perpetual outrage would inflame the tensions they believe they need to tame in order to coax the country in a different direction.
Normalcy is as much a part of the Biden strategy as chaos was for Trump. The new president views his predecessor as an aberration and believes that he will be judged by how well he restores the familiar rhythms of life to a nation shredded by the pandemic and buffeted by a four-year-long reality television show. Biden has been far more active than he has been visible, believing that people do not want to see the president constantly and certainly do not want to worry about what he might do next. This has been predictably comforting for those who feel they have been through a four-year long assault, and Biden has been rewarded with the majority approval that Trump craved but never achieved.
However, there is an ironic undercurrent to Biden’s no-drama administration. He will need legislative support for huge initiatives in order to turn his “Build Back Better” agenda into law. Based on the reaction to the massive Covid relief bill he shepherded through Congress, Biden believes the public will respond positively to the large economic, civil rights, election reform, policing and immigration measures he has proposed to address the intertwined crises that continue to envelop the country. With the slimmest of congressional majorities and with Republicans rejecting his agenda, Biden’s strongest ally is a sense of urgency around congressional action. If the country is in crisis then we can’t afford to wait for relief, and big actions are essential to meet the moment. This is the argument he made successfully about the Covid relief bill.
But big actions are in tension with the optics of normalcy, and the need to move swiftly to capitalize on the moment is at odds with the lumbering legislative process. If, as the administration has promised, the small details of everyday life soon become the rule rather than the exception, the president could start losing some of the propellant that rocketed him to his early success, even as economic, civil rights and climate crises continue to demand immediate attention. It takes exceptional moments of crisis to shock the political process into bold action, and Biden is attempting a politically challenging balancing act by relying on extraordinary circumstances to prod his slender majorities to do huge things while working assiduously to quell the emergency. Delay is always on the side of those who want to protect the status quo. At the rate things are going, the administration may only have through the summer before it becomes the victim of its own success.