It took about 50 days for US president Joe Biden to fulfil his 100-day vow of 100m vaccinations. The trick is as simple as it is old: under-promise and over-deliver. Yet after four years of Donald Trump doing the opposite, it feels strangely novel. The same applies to Biden’s $1.9tn recovery package. In one bill, he has provided the financial relief that Trump kept telling middle-class Americans they already had. Might America dare to hope that its days of politics as a branch of the entertainment industry are over?
All kinds of things can and will go wrong — starting with the growing migrant surge on America’s southern border. But Biden has three key advantages. His most important is what Napoleon Bonaparte sought in his generals: luck. The best recipe for success in a new job is to follow an underperformer. Biden also inherited a pandemic that was ripe for fixing.
The most effective thing Trump did as president was to fund Operation Warp Speed. Biden took office just as America’s vaccines were coming online and infections were peaking. This offered him a once-in-a-century chance to demonstrate the power of public service. If the virus peters out in the US by the summer, the resulting economic boom will give Biden a springboard to do all kinds of things that would previously have been unthinkable.
Biden’s second attribute is experience. Bill Clinton’s former strategist James Carville was fond of repeating the quote: “The more I practice at golf, the luckier I get.” Among recent US presidents, only George Bush senior could compare with Biden’s public tenure. But neither he, Richard Nixon nor Lyndon Johnson match Biden’s combined 44 years as a senator and vice-president. Under the rules of US politics, Washington experience counts heavily against you in the public mind. Biden thus said little in the campaign about his storied history.
In practice, however, experience counts for a lot. Knowing the key players on Capitol Hill can make all the difference for cutting deals. The same applies to Biden’s team. Janet Yellen is arguably the most qualified person to be made US Treasury Secretary, having run the US Federal Reserve and Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, has played that role for two vice-presidents and headed America’s response to an earlier epidemic, the Ebola virus.
US history is littered with new presidents sweeping in with out-of-town teams and then tripping up. Think of Jimmy Carter’s Georgians, Clinton’s Arkansans and Barack Obama’s Chicagoans. It takes at least two years for them to gain a footing, if they ever do. Biden has so far bypassed that hurdle. Having taken almost every position on every issue during his long career, Biden is seen by the left as devoid of principle. But that can also be an asset. Republicans cannot paint Biden as a radical. The left has nowhere else to go.
The result is a quiet sea change in the tone of US politics. The media has been complaining that Biden has waited longer than any recent US president to hold a press conference (his first will be next week). Nobody else particularly cares. Last year, Trump daily undermined his own coronavirus task force with absurd theories about the virus. Obama would periodically deliver an exquisite speech then fall short on the follow through. Biden is not a good public speaker and often mangles his words.
But good oratory can be overrated — ask Germany’s Angela Merkel. Biden delegates a lot of his White House communication and day-to-day decisions to others. Here is his third attribute. By the standards of most US presidents, Biden’s ego is modest. That is an admittedly low bar. But at 78, it is hard to claim you personify the wave of the future. The best kind of politics is to govern, rather than fret about your brand. This sets Biden apart from Obama as well as Trump. Not everything needs to be about him.
Through a mix of luck and experience, Biden’s opening spell has been the most accident-free of any US president in recent memory. At some point Biden will get into difficulty and may well mess up. In the meantime, he is proving that you do not need to be a superstar to govern America. Indeed, it helps to be free of any obligation to play that role.