Biden’s Big Tent
Headlines say the president is pivoting to the center on policy. Joe Biden the person is guided by the empathy, optimism, and patriotism that bring the big tent to life.
President Biden is moving to the center, according to recent headlines.
Biden has always been squarely in the mainstream — at least when it comes to rhetoric and ideological orientation, if not policy — but the “Biden pivots to the center” narrative will likely grow as the 2024 election nears.
As Jonathan Chait explains in a spectacular deep dive in New York Magazine, the president’s apparent shift toward the middle can be understood as the product of four relatively recent developments:
Personnel: “Biden’s departed chief of staff, Ron Klain, attended fastidiously to progressive groups, making them not only feel valued but possess real influence. His successor, Jeffrey Zients, keeps much more distant relations with the professional left… it’s less that Biden is moving to the center because he replaced Klain with Zients, than he replaced Klain with Zients because he had to move to the center.”
Political Conditions: “The 2022 midterm elections gave more support to the value of winning the political center than it did to the strategy of base mobilization… The winning formula involved persuading small numbers of cross-pressured voters, rather than mobilizing turnout among the base. Indeed, in Georgia, a state that progressives had once held up as a laboratory of base-driven victory, Democrats prevailed by flipping Republican voters, not by winning the turnout war.”
Policy Needs: “The deepest substantive break between Biden and progressives is likely to center on climate policy. In part, this is because the biggest area of overlap between Biden’s goals and those of the left — increasing subsidies for green energy — has been accomplished. With that off the table, what remains to be settled are matters that divide the administration from the progressive movement.”
Economic Conditions: “A key foundation to Biden’s expansive domestic agenda was a long period of low inflation and interest rates and economic slack… The stubborn return of inflation has flipped this dynamic. Whereas before almost any new spending could be seen as a good thing — more demand would coax more people back into the workforce and lift their pay — those effects are now harmful. Democrats… now need to consider trade-offs that, until recently, they could ignore.”
These are important explainers for why we’re going to hear more about the president’s centrist streak. But beyond policy and political considerations, we think there’s something deeper going on with Joe Biden’s centrism — and it’s been going on for some time.
Biden’s mainstream, middle-out orientation doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s rooted in a deep sense of empathy, optimism, and patriotism.
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Your Average Joe – In the Deepest Sense
At the core of Joe Biden’s authenticity and big-tent orientation is his relationship to tragedy, perhaps the most painfully ordinary feature of the human condition. The president struggles like the rest of us — and he does so publicly, exuding a well-developed sense of empathy.
Biden has seen more than his share of tragedy. Weeks after he was first elected to the Senate, he lost his wife and daughter in a horrific car accident that also left his two sons severely wounded. In 2015, he lost his eldest son and close confidant, Beau, to brain cancer at the age of 46. And his youngest son, Hunter, grappled with serious addiction challenges.
Biden has wrestled publicly with the tragedy that has shaped his life. Unlike plenty of others in politics, Biden does not hide the fact that he’s a fallible mortal like the rest of us. In contrast with some of the loudest and most pedantic voices on the far-left, he doesn’t like to lecture, he doesn’t pretend to have a plan for everything, and he is willing to acknowledge that sometimes it’s okay to simply struggle without having all the answers.
No example captures this more poignantly than a voicemail message he left for his son Hunter in the depths of his struggles:
“It's Dad. I called to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world, pal. You gotta get some help. I know you don't know what to do. I don't either."
Sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes you just struggle. The president’s familiarity with that experience gives him a deep empathy that is ingrained in everything he does.
But don’t take it from us. Take it from Lindsey Graham:
Joe Biden has spent his life confronting tragedy — and he’s done it with a profound sense of optimism about the future.
This optimistic attitude (concurrent with a serious acknowledgement of and grappling with tragedy) is too often missing on the ideological poles, where activists and politicians alike employ catastrophic language and a cynical doomsday mentality to terrify their supporters into action. As Matt Yglesias surmised in a recent Slow Boring piece, pronounced rates of depression among young liberals may be connected to the far-left’s apocalyptic tone.
But Biden’s tone is different. His political career has been marked by a persistent, forward-looking optimism, especially in the face of great tragedy. That orientation took on an especially prominent role in his 2020 presidential campaign, in which he faced the near-impossible task of uniting the country in the midst of a divisive and anti-democratic demagogue, a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic, and a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice.
As he said in his speech at the 2020 DNC:
“Love is more powerful than hate, hope is more powerful than fear, and light is more powerful than dark. This is our moment. This is our mission. May history be able to say that the end of this darkness began here, tonight, as love and hope and light join in the battle for the soul of the nation. This is a battle we will win and we’ll do it together. I promise you.”
Joe Biden knows it is possible to grapple with immense tragedy and suffering and keep moving forward for the good of others. From the Senate to the presidential campaign trail to the White House, he has been adamant that our brightest days lie ahead:
Finally, Joe Biden is as patriotic as they come. He is a deep believer in the American experiment and one of its most vocal cheerleaders.
Examples of the president’s persistent patriotism abound, but here are just a few examples from the last seven years of turmoil.
In a 2017 speech, Biden took the patriotic high ground against then-President Donald Trump. As he put it:
“Here we are deciding ‘America first?’ Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Make America great again?’ We are by far the greatest, powerful, decent nation in the world. Ask yourself this rhetorical question: Do you think there’s any nation in the world — any leader — who would trade places with any place but us?”
As president, he has continued to call America “the greatest nation on Earth” and “the most unique idea in history” — all while working around the clock to make it live up to its ideals more strongly.
This spirit — empathy, optimism and patriotism in the face of personal and national tragedy — is at the core of the big-tent project.
Big-Tent Leadership Runs to the Top of the Ticket
We think and write a lot about the big-tent leaders who reach out to voters in the middle with empathy, optimism, and patriotism. From Tim Ryan to Reverend Warnock to Abigail Spanberger to Adam Frisch and Sharice Davids, the Democratic Party is full of mainstream candidates and politicians who harness electoral volatility and welcome more voters in.
These depolarizers don’t get the media attention they deserve, but they are out there winning moderate and center-right swing voters, beating back the flames of authoritarianism, and clearing a path for like-minded (lowercase “d”) democrats to follow.
Biden’s lower-key presence in daily life makes it easier to forget that Democrats’ mainstream faction runs right up to the top of the ticket. Few figures in modern politics are as uniquely emblematic of the center-left’s welcoming, empathetic, and pragmatic orientation than President Biden himself.
The president gets a rough shake from those to his right and left. Every gaffe or slip-up, no matter how small, becomes bad-faith primetime fodder for Fox News. Every instance of insufficient progressivism is met with an entitled sense of anger and betrayal (and often a tweetstorm) from the Online Left.
Through it all, Biden has kept his head down and delivered a slate of mainstream wins for the country — from the American Rescue Plan to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to the Inflation Reduction Act — with razor-thin margins in both Houses of Congress.
Joe Biden has become one of the most effective presidents in recent history not just by his approach to policy but by his demeanor — by being empathetic, optimistic, and patriotic to his core.
We will continue to hear about the president’s pivot to the pragmatic center through policy. We should keep in mind there is much to learn from the person, too.
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