Seems implausible, doesn’t it? But it’s worth pondering why. For President Donald Trump, acting crazy had a rational purpose. His supporters loved it and would-be rebels in his own party were beaten into submission so thoroughly that they cheered him as lustily as supporters. Trump’s skill in enforcing obsequiousness was an important political asset. Why can’t Joe Biden create a cult of personality, too?
Two ingredients are missing. One is an outsize leadership personality of the sort that the genial Biden doesn’t possess. The second, more important, is an instinct for cultlike compliance that isn’t part of the Democratic Party character or tradition.
This highlights an important psychological difference between the parties. The conservative mind typically has a natural deference to authority, making Republicans more likely to respond positively to the notion of a president laying down the law and punishing dissenters. The liberal mind typically has a natural skepticism toward authority, and a natural sympathy to the grievances and demands of its own special-interest constituencies, especially when these are groups that historically have faced prejudice. This is generalizing, of course. But the generalities have enough validity that it is virtually impossible to imagine a Democratic president bullying his party the way Trump has bullied Republicans.
Alas, as Biden is showing, it is not so hard to imagine the opposite phenomenon: Democrats bullying their president.
During the transition, Biden has often seemed as if someone affixed a “kick me” sign to the back of his suit jacket. The transition, which has seen prominent Democrats openly carping about Biden’s process and several of his decisions, risks creating a dangerous dynamic for the incoming president. In the Washington context, Biden’s peril is that he is sending the message that there is not a penalty for publicly pressuring him, and is likely a benefit. In the national context, any president should wish to project a leadership vision that transcends party and clamoring constituencies.
In recent days, POLITICO compiled a list of stubbed toes in the transition as Biden’s team sought to navigate conflicting demands from interest groups (“Way more chaotic than it needed to be,” scoffed one insider), and the Washington Post documented “frustration from liberals, civil rights leaders, and younger activists.” The New York Times said the “factionalism and fierce impatience” Biden is confronting highlight his likely challenges in governing. That article included a puff of smoke to Biden’s face from Ocasio-Cortez, who said his moves do not add up to an inspiring vision: “You have an individual appointment here, an individual appointment there. What is the overall message from the big picture in this entire Cabinet put together?”
What gives? Isn’t AOC worried she will get in trouble with her party’s leader, or, at a minimum, with his presumably less good-natured staff? No, she isn’t. No more than Sanders or Rep. Jim Clyburn, both of whom coughed and brayed to reporters about what they saw, respectively, as the cautious ideological tilt of Biden’s appointments or the insufficient racial diversity of the first wave of picks. Plenty of politicians and activists have followed their cue.
No need to overstate what’s going on here. Democratic presidents often get harried in this fashion. In 1992, Bill Clinton glared and wagged his finger as he denounced “bean counters” for playing “quota games and math games” when they said his appointments reflected insufficient top jobs for women and minorities.
In Biden’s case, the president-elect has grumbled privately to some fellow Democrats about being hassled by his party. But it doesn’t seem to have inhibited him from going with whom he wanted on positions that matter most to him, with longtime aides Ron Klain becoming chief of staff and Antony Blinken the nominee for secretary of State.
Arguably, it projects self-confidence, not weakness, not to be hypersensitive in the way that Trump is to intramural carping. Biden’s attitude seems to be, What the hell, no big deal, that’s just Democrats doing business.
But it could easily become a bigger deal than Biden wants. Substantively, Biden is hoping to pass an agenda on pandemic rescue, climate change and a dramatic expansion of government’s role in health care. He’ll do so on the back of a narrow and wobbly House majority and either a minority in the Senate or — at best, pending a special election in Georgia — a tie in the chamber that would be broken by Vice President Kamala Harris. That’s hard to do under any circumstance. It’s harder still with a fractious party in which some elements inevitably will believe Biden is not going far enough, some will fear he’s going too far, and multiple claimants will perceive their leverage is enhanced by airing their demands and grievances in public.
Lyndon B. Johnson was so sensitive about leaks and the appearance of control that he sometimes reversed course on planned appointments if the news came out in advance.
There wouldn’t be an appetite for that kind of enforced discipline in today’s Democratic Party. But it seems likely Biden will soon enough have to send the message something like this: The way to influence the Democratic Party is to talk to the leader of the Democratic Party. And if you want to be heard, you need to call me — not the New York Times.
For now, the transition is a kind of open-air bazaar, with loud haggling at every booth. This works well for factional leaders and for journalists. Despite the grumbling, so far it seems to be doing a decent job creating an administration that broadly represents the earnestly grumpy party that coalesced — with ambivalence on multiple counts — around Biden as the best chance of dethroning Trump.
But as he moves from a campaign for power to actually exercising power, Biden will soon enough need to show that just because he isn’t a bully, doesn’t mean he can be bullied.