Biden needs to be both Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside

President Biden delivers remarks at NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Newark, N.J. on Monday, October 25, 2021.
UPI Photo

In his autobiography, President Biden wrote of Bill Clinton’s presidency: “It’s almost impossible for a president to set an agenda and follow it day by day. He’s got to react to something new every day and take the waves as they come.” For Biden, life inside the White House is akin to a pounding surf — the crises just keep coming. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has there been a need for a president to master both the inside game of Washington, D.C., and the outside game of selling his proposals to an anxious public.

No president since Lyndon B. Johnson knows how to play the inside game better than Joe Biden. Robert Caro dubbed Johnson the “Master of the Senate,” describing how LBJ acquired and used power unlike any other Senate majority leader in history. At the Johnson Library dozens of presidential pens are on display, each representing a landmark bill Johnson signed into law. Johnson’s Great Society transformed the country in ways not seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Biden harbors similar ambitions. As one White House staffer recently said: “Go in a time machine. It’s January 1, 2021. Someone tells you Joe Biden is going to pass [a] $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, [a] $1.2 trillion infrastructure [bill], [and a] $1.8 [trillion] Build Back Better [plan]—more than FDR and LBJ combined—in his first year.” That’s Mr. Inside at work. 

Being an effective Mr. Inside matters. In 2020, voters saw Biden’s decades of government experience as an asset. Today, insiders marvel at Biden’s effectiveness in brokering deals, as Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) conceded: “I gotta admit: as a guy who traveled three states for Bernie Sanders, I’m impressed … [Biden] does most of his stuff behind the scenes. He only brings something to the public when he has to bring it to a public fight.”

But being an effective insider has its limitations. In 2019, Biden touted working with southern segregationists Herman Talmadge and James Eastland, saying, “We got things done.” But Biden’s promise that he could cut deals with those with whom he profoundly disagrees on other issues had little appeal to Democratic primary voters enraged by Donald Trump. Only the pandemic added urgency to Biden’s insider message that in a national emergency he could “get things done.”

For several months, Biden played an inside game trying to pass his domestic agenda. When infrastructure negotiations with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) failed, Biden turned to retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) as his new negotiating partner. The deal they brokered won support from 19 GOP senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) But when Biden and Democratic progressives tied final passage to agreement on what Biden calls the “care economy,” things stalled.

Biden says he literally spent a “hundred hours” working with congressional Democrats trying to cut a deal. In public, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) insisted Biden’s Build Back Better program should have a $3.5 trillion price tag; Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) would not budge beyond $1.5 trillion.

As the debate continued, the administration’s message became muddled. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found 57 percent of respondents either had a general idea of what was in the legislation or didn’t know. But thanks to the public spats among Democrats, 59 percent said they knew what the plan cost. Part of being an effective Mr. Inside involves keeping lines of communication open and maintaining confidentiality. But being a successful public salesman requires very different talents.

Historian Eric F. Goldman perceptively noted that the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson was thinking the insider skills he perfected on Capitol Hill would serve him well in the presidency. But the presidency is more than being a prime minister. To be effective, a president must also be a persuasive Mr. Outside. 

That means using the symbols of the presidency to deliver a compelling message and engaging in the art of endless repetition. In the past, Joe Biden has delivered powerful messages. In 2012, Biden made the best case for Barack Obama’s reelection by endlessly repeating, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!” When Biden spoke in 2020 about restoring the “soul of America,” insiders scoffed but voters got it.

Earlier this year, Biden told a Rose Garden audience: “You got to tell people in plain, simple, straightforward language what it is you are doing to help. You have to be able to tell a story, tell the story of what you’re about to do and why it matters because it’s going to make a difference in the lives of millions of people and in very concrete, specific ways.”

But Biden has shied away from delivering a primetime Oval Office address. Franklin D. Roosevelt used his fireside chats to speak plainly, and Ronald Reagan mastered the art of performing on television. Biden is neither Roosevelt nor Reagan. But he can be Harry Truman.

A primetime address emulating Truman’s plain-speaking style that explains how his proposals will make his listeners’ lives better would help improve those sagging polling numbers. When both bills are passed, as they will be, Biden should eschew the traditional glad-handing Rose Garden ceremony and return to his native Scranton to affix his signature onto these new laws in the presence of the working-class Americans from whence he came. That event should be followed by others, creating an endless repetition of how the middle class has what Biden likes to call “a little breathing room.”

Getting legislation passed and explaining how it changes lives requires two very different skill sets. Few presidents have been effective at playing Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. Today, Biden must do both.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags American Rescue Plan Act Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Biden infrastructure bill Bill Clinton Bill Johnson Build Back Better Donald Trump Franklin D. Roosevelt Harry Truman Joe Biden Joe Manchin LBJ Mark Pocan Mitch McConnell Political positions of Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Rob Portman Shelley Moore Capito

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