Sunday, September 3, 2023

BTRTN: The Invisible Presidency

Tom is back with the August, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.


Has there ever been a less visible or newsworthy president than Joe Biden, at least in the modern media era?

It’s a great question to ponder as Biden seeks reelection by an American public from whom he has largely been kept hidden. 

We probably do not have to “prove” the premise that Biden is indeed our most invisible president.  But we will offer one data point:  In the month of August The New York Times pushed out a total of 31 “Breaking News” alerts that were, broadly speaking, of a political nature.  Only one of these alerts mentioned Joe Biden by name -- and even that one was not because of an action on his part, but rather when the Supreme Court revived Biden’s policy on “ghost” guns.  Donald Trump garnered eleven mentions, murdered Russian mutineer Yevgheny Prigozhin had two, Rudy Giuliani, Hunter Biden and Clarence Thomas each had one, and George Santos (actually in reference to one of his aides) and Kevin McCarthy (whom the aide impersonated) shared one.  Such a low share of the political space was unheard of not only in Trump’s times, but it is hard to envision that any recent president would go a month – even August – making such little news.

For the leader of the free world, Biden is pulling off a remarkable feat in hiding in plain sight.  This is, of course, a very conscious strategy, one employed for two excellent reasons. 

The first is that Biden, at age 80, is better in concept than he is in the flesh.  Americans surely elected Biden because he embodies all sorts of attributes that were sorely lacking in the Trump years:  deep government experience, steady hands, a calm demeanor, a respect for both domestic and global institutions and norms, and a “humanity” factor in terms of being warm, likeable and empathetic.  Americans, shattered by the decibel level of the Trump era and the disorientation of the pandemic, craved nothing more than a return to normalcy, where people went about their business and politics intruded in their lives in a predictable manner, even during the inevitable crisis of one kind or another.

All that is Biden, and in a very authentic way.  That is the heart of his appeal.  If Joe Biden were 65 or 70, he would probably be one of our more popular recent presidents by now, with near universal approval among his own party and independents and a grudging respect by some mainstream Republicans.  But he is, in fact, 80, and while relatively hearty for that age, he nonetheless projects neither vitality nor clarity of thought.  He has always been a halting speaker (the remnants of a childhood speech impediment) and a gaffe-machine (the downside of his from-the-heart spontaneity), and even though these have long been part of his political baggage, they make him seem even older than he is.

On top of this, it has not been a good era for octogenarians, who still loom large over the political scene.  Ruth Bader Ginsberg diminished her considerable legacy by lingering too long on the Supreme Court, dying (at 87) when the GOP controlled both the White House and the Senate, thus ceding her seat on the bench to an archconservative.  Both Dianne Feinstein (now 90) and Mitch McConnell (81) have recently displayed moments suggestive of a steep decline of capability.  Democrats fear nothing more than Biden suffering such an event, particularly in public.  If Biden were unable to run for a second term, the Democrats would be faced with Kamala Harris at the top of the ticket, and, whatever her true capabilities, the optics of Harris’s short-lived presidential candidacy and her Vice Presidency to date have not been good.  If a Biden withdrawal happened early enough for challengers to emerge – a window that is rapidly closing – it is not at all clear who an electable alternative might be.   For Democrats, the only thing worse than a Biden candidacy is…anything else.

The second big reason for Biden to remain in the shadows is that the actual headliners are themselves making an excellent case for a Biden second term.  Look at those who dominated the August headlines.  There was Trump, with his fourth indictment, a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 presidential results in the state of Georgia.  There was the slate of contender-pretenders that the Republicans offered up in a Trump-free debate, from the dystopian sneering of Ron DeSantis, to the smug mania of Trump-wannabee Vivek Ramaswamy, to the shallow, nice-guy vagueness of Tim Scott and so on.  (The best line I heard was that the debate was “a bunch of single-digit candidates tearing apart other single-digit candidates” – referencing that no one attacked either frontrunner Trump or, more surprisingly, the second place DeSantis.)

The headlines included the death of Prigozhin, almost surely on the untraceable orders of Vladimir Putin; the pathetic Rudy Guiliani; the caught-with-his-fingers-in-a-giant-cookie-jar Clarence Thomas, and the pathological fabulist George Santos.  There was smarmy Kevin McCarthy and talk of a Biden impeachment inquiry, a gift to the 2024 Biden campaign.  What better set of headlines could Biden want than his various rivals continually veering off in an orgy of incredibly grotesque and absurd behavior?  With the vision-less, alternative-less GOP groping its way through a not-dead-yet Trump revival and the world order being so visibly threatened by Putin, Biden’s strengths are once again being perfectly displayed by the words and actions of his enemies.  Why try to change the channel to focus on the man himself, when your opposition is essentially engaged in politically-suicidal messaging?  That would make no sense.

But while the upsides of hiding Biden are reasonably clear, there is a major downside as well. 

The President of the United States has a unique platform, a massive one, the “bully pulpit” as Teddy Roosevelt famously described it.  Biden cannot simply count on his rivals’ self-immolation alone – he certainly needs to tell his story.  He has a record of achievement that he wants to run on and a complex economic situation to explain, and taking a back seat to his opponents forfeits the opportunity to make the case.  Sure Biden has made some speeches – notably a rather bold attempt (given the risks) to brand the current economic environment with the term “Bidenomics.”   (This is risky because American’s are not happy with the state of the economy, likely because of the lagging effect of high inflation on mortgage and auto interest rates and the disproportionate impact of inflation on the “have nots” who are living payckeck-to-pacyhceck.)  But his efforts thus far are from adequate -- America right now needs an "Explainer in Chief" (as Barack Obama once dubbed Bill Clinton).  Even if Biden were a Great Communicator, it would be very tough to break through the gusher of news emanating daily from the indictments.  Given his lack of commitment to being visible, it is simply impossible.  Biden’s surrogates are on the hustings, but – apart from being unpopular themselves (Kamala Harris, Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer are even more disliked than Biden) – there is no substitute for the bully pulpit. 

Obama was often critiqued for not successfully selling his achievements; he often gave the impression that he was "above that."  Joe Biden surely knows better and has gone to school on the lessons of that era, but his communications calculus is very different.  And net/net, he is probably right to err on the side of being less visible.

After all, Donald Trump is his likely opponent, and while all these indictments are a plus for the nomination, they are certainly a minus for the general election.  Because of the polarization of our nation, elections truly are won and lost on the margins, and the political factors that drive turnout probably favor Biden at this juncture.  He wants the Trump indictments spectacle (motions, testimony, live TV from Georgia) to be breaking news 24/7.  He wants Putin to play the very public thug.  He thinks the economic story is moving his way.  And he knows that, with the abortion issue, he is holding the high card when it comes to motivating his base and driving turnout.  And he understands the need to keep the "age" issue as invisible as possible.

Don’t expect Joe Biden to emerge from hiding anytime soon.  Back in olden times -- before even Biden was born -- it was de rigueur for incumbent presidents to employ a “Rose Garden” re-election strategy.  That is, the president was viewed as being too busy tending to the nation’s business to be out on the campaign trail, too focused on his duties to stray far from the Oval Office -- and its outdoor neighbor, the Rose Garden.  But both Roosevelts, with their bully pulpit mentality and Fireside Chat communications gifts, raised the visibility of presidents, and the media age made further demands on the public nature of the job.  The public presidency was exploited naturally and to advantage by the smooth talking and camera-friendly John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (and even, memorably, by George W. Bush in the early days after 9/11).  But it is not kind to lesser lights, and Biden is certainly one of those.

Joe Biden ran in 2020 largely from his basement in Delaware, able to use the Covid crisis to both model good pandemic behavior and keep a low-profile for political advantage.  We can expect in 2024 that he will campaign with another version of hiding in plain sight, resurrecting some form of a Rose Garden strategy.

Stay tuned.



Joe Biden’s approval rating slipped a point in August from 42% to 41%.  This represents the 24th straight month that Biden has been within the 39-45% range.  The ratings of Biden’s performance on the issues was generally unchanged.  The "Bidenometer" dropped somewhat from 40 to 35, driven by a dip in the Dow and consumer confidence and a rise in gas prices.  Second quarter GDP was also downwardly revised from 2.4% to 2.0%.  But the +35 level still means the economy is in far better shape than the one he inherited from Trump (see below).


The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +41 for July, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 35% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +35, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +35 under Biden.

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