Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team

The legend of the great Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is as a rigid stickler: The Packer sweep with pulling guards Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer leading interference for running back Paul Hornung. 

Lombardi, who died years ago, was that, but much more — an innovator, adapting to changing circumstances. That’s a hallmark of effective leaders, coaches, generals and presidents. 

It’s a lesson President Biden needs to heed.

The besieged White House staff reportedly bristles at the oft-cited need for a “reset.” Okay, let’s say “adapt.”

Most presidents do that.

Ronald Reagan moderated after his first year, accepting tax hikes to offset some of the earlier cuts. Barack Obama, after the terrible midterms, took to the road more. Bill Clinton, in his second year, overhauled his top staff and began “triangulating” to cut a few deals with Republicans. Biden doesn’t have that option. With rare exceptions, the GOP has no interest in exploring common ground on issues like health care or taxes or child poverty.

Some matters are beyond Biden’s control. If COVID doesn’t diminish by early summer and inflation stays at 6 percent to 7 percent, Republicans will easily take control of Congress. Inexplicably, the party has paid no price for embracing the pernicious “Big Lie” that the last election was stolen or been held to account for the Trump-inspired Jan. 6 violent insurrection of the U.S. Capitol to try overturn the 2020 presidential election.

The optimistic notion, advanced by some White House strategists, that COVID will diminish over the next few months with a return to near normalcy — maybe — accompanied by an unprecedented economic surge — possibly — is helpful, not sufficient.

There has to be change.

Pay little attention to calls from anti-Biden conservatives, like GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, to fire White House chief of staff Ron Klain. These critics have little interest in the president succeeding.

Yet irrespective of organizational charts, there is an urgent need to enlist a few fresh, energetic people who check three critical boxes: They’re good communicators, are peers with the president, and have faced voters. It only will work if they have total access to Biden and are involved in major deliberations.

Two perfect candidates: Mitch Landrieu, currently the infrastructure czar, and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. They hold important jobs, but those jobs can be filled by people almost as capable.

Jen Psaki, arguably, is the best White House press secretary in modern times. That’s different than broader communications. Biden, unlike Obama and Clinton, isn’t a very effective communicator; voters have little sense of what he stands for. Landrieu and Granholm are terrific communicators, as well as seasoned politicians. They could provide a supplementary megaphone for the president, conveying the administration’s signature values and policies.

The president should travel more to towns and rural areas, meeting with small groups where his empathy and personal charm are maximized. These should include a few unfriendly venues.

For Biden, these are better than town halls or major speeches. (However, I was a fan of his Atlanta voting rights speech.)

A Landrieu and/or Granholm could more effectively take on Republican attacks. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), after near total silence during the Trump years, called Biden’s voting rights speech “unpresidential.” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also went unchallenged when cry-babying that the White House never contacted him on the voting rights bill. The Utah Republican had made quite clear publicly and in conversations with Senate Democrats and others that he had no interest in helping the measure to overturn voter suppression laws.

Also there has to be accountability. The withdrawal from Afghanistan — a necessary move — was botched, yet no heads rolled. The administration’s COVID policies, while a marked improvement from what was inherited, have sown confusion, again with no accountability. What is the border policy?

Voting rights legislation may be dead because of the inexcusable stance of Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). But with a 50-50 Senate, the White House has to scale back. (It’s a bum rap that Biden ran as a moderate and then governed from the left; most everything he proposed he campaigned on.)

There is a realistic chance, as Biden said, the Democrats might be able to get key pieces of the Build Back Better domestic spending/investment initiatives passed separately. Inflation hawk Larry Summers has pointedly said these measures are not inflationary.

Even with Lombardi-type adjustments, the challenges for Biden and his party are daunting. If Republicans take either or both houses of Congress, there will be nothing but attacks and faux investigations. Imagine right-wing hit man Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Two of my favorite politicians offered different versions of what lies ahead in bad times. Democrat Abner Mikva used to say, “It’s always darkest before dawn.” Republican John McCain, citing Mao Tse Tung, declared, “It’s always darkest before it’s black.”

If Biden can adapt to a new norm — and with a little luck — it might get brighter.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

–Updated on Jan. 24 at 5:42 a.m.

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