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Will he be rewarded?
To everything there is a season — including the worlds of politics and governance.
A time to talk, and a time to listen;
A time to govern, and a time to campaign;
A time to legislate, and a time to implement.
As we reflect on what has been widely lauded as a highly successful State of the Union address — perhaps the best speech of Joe Biden’s long and storied career — let us consider a skill this president has demonstrated that might not get enough attention: patience.
In our nanosecond news cycle, where waves of urgency and emotion crescendo, crest, and disappear across our daily conscience, patience especially can seem like a throwback to a distant past. We are constantly being inundated with the “latest,” no matter what it might be. And in such an environment, it is understandable to feel an urge for instant gratification.
One gets a clear sense, however, that Biden isn’t tempted by Twitter, cowed by cable news, or outraged by op-eds. He understands that winning the daily D.C. scrum doesn’t necessarily translate into winning elections. And the latter is what matters in the ultimate game of power and impact.
What we saw on Tuesday night was an author intent on telling his own story. Having served for decades in the Senate and eight years as vice president, Biden understands better than most that you have to take advantage of opportunities when you have them. In the first two years of his presidency, he had Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. It’s not a given he will ever have that again, even if he wins reelection. So what did he do? He focused on getting as much done as he could. And that ended up being a heckuva lot.
Now Biden is in a place to see the payoff for all that activity. Even if he weren’t to sign another major piece of legislation, as the chief executive, his job is now to turn those new laws into the workings of government. That means overseeing the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars to remake America, quite literally, on everything from infrastructure to the environment.
With spigots of money flowing, it will be vital that the Biden administration finds ways to combat corruption and graft. The president highlighted that need in the State of the Union, where he mentioned efforts to crack down on money stolen from COVID relief funds. It was an important acknowledgement but one that will require vigilance and accountability. We will continue to follow this story here at Steady.
Biden’s bet is that he can oversee a government that works, and especially works for working families. He wants to expand our national ambitions on what we can build and imagine, and he wants to demonstrate that the public sector is essential in spurring big ideas and initiatives. He believes that a country of action is a country that can be more united. He wants to build figurative bridges by building literal ones, showing America what we can accomplish together.
Biden knows that over his career, views of government, especially big government, have fluctuated considerably. We are still shaped by the currents of the so-called Reagan Revolution, in which a charismatic president found his moment to drastically shift what many Americans thought our government should be and shouldn’t do.
Ronald Reagan was known as the “great communicator,” an honor that few would bestow on Biden. But there was something Reaganesque about the speech on Tuesday. Reagan had an ironclad vision for what he wanted America to be, but he delivered that vision with humor, a smile, and a twinkle in his eye. He was not afraid to engage with his Democratic detractors, but he would also disarm them with rhetoric about working together when making his case to the American people. He spoke of hope for America, and common sense, and our need to remember what made us special. And in doing so, he peeled millions of voters, especially blue-collar voters, away from the Democrats. Biden tried to use these same tactics to reverse this trend on Tuesday.
Reagan was also patient. His rise to power from actor to California governor to the presidency was strategically planned and executed. He carefully chose his moments both for compromise and debate.
Reagan knew, as does Biden, that patience does not mean passivity. But it does sometimes mean getting pummeled in the short term while you are focused on the long term. We can now look back at the arc of the Reagan presidency and see that his patience was rewarded. Even after Republicans were wiped out in his first midterm elections in 1982, he swept to a landslide reelection in 1984. Over his two terms he remade America for a generation to come. Biden saw Democrats do well in his first midterm, but the larger arc of his time in office remains to be written.
In assessing Biden’s patience, one should consider his age. He is the oldest president we’ve ever had, surpassing the previous record set by Reagan. Biden did not have a reputation for patience when he was younger. But when you’ve seen a lot, you tend to have a better sense of what will prove to be lasting and important.
Another truth of Biden’s life is that it has been marked by tragedy and grief. He refers to this often because it clearly has guided his journey and sense of purpose. On the scale of life and death, what’s trending on Twitter doesn’t amount to anything. The din of the here and now often fades and is forgotten. In contrast, what sometimes seems minor in the present turns out to be a force that can shape the future.
It is clear that Biden has a long-term vision for this nation and how he intends to lead it. Can he will that vision into reality in the months remaining of this term? Does he get four more years to try?
We wait, watch, and wonder.
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