Published October 22, 2021
President Biden’s 36 years in the Senate define his political style. That’s a plus when it comes to the inside-baseball negotiating that produces legislation. It’s a huge minus, however, when it comes to displaying the consistent, public leadership that defines successful presidencies. It’s increasingly obvious that Biden does not possess that crucial skill.
The most successful presidents have a few things in common. They build their public careers around a core idea, such as Thomas Jefferson’s vision of agrarian republicanism or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s belief in a strong, compassionate national government. They use rhetoric to rally the public behind them so that there’s no mistake what electing them will bring. Their earliest legislative proposals flow from that core, and they are consistent in pursuing their aims even if the final details are subject to negotiation. Look at the presidents who changed the country — Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan — and each displays the same characteristics.
Biden is nothing like these men. He has been in the national eye for nearly 50 years, and one simply cannot identify a single, defining core principle. Biden instead shifts with the tides — he was a moderate Democrat opposed to abortion rights when that was the center of Delaware public opinion, and a mild progressive opposed to any abortion regulations when that’s what the national party desired. He is a political Zelig, able to materialize in whatever image Democrats want to project.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.