WASHINGTON – Almost every day of his young tenure, President Joe Biden has entered the State Dining Room, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln looking down and wood burning in the fireplace. He speaks on the planned topic of the day. He sits at an undersized desk and searches for a pen to sign his latest stack of executive orders. Within 30 minutes of entering the camera’s frame, he has left it.
It is all plotted and planned. Little room is left for the unscripted or the unusual.
Biden’s first full week in office has showcased an almost jarring departure from his predecessor’s chaotic style, providing the first window into a tenure whose mission is not only to remake the White House in Biden’s image but also to return the presidency itself to what he sees as its rightful path.
The result so far is a 9-to-5 presidency – a tightly scripted burst of activity that was charted over the past few months, as Biden seeks to avoid heated conflict and stick to his plan of lowering the political temperature to a level that many Americans can tune out.
“I’ve heard from more people in the last couple of days how nice it is to turn on the TV and not have to figure out the latest drama of the day,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. “It looks a lot like the George W. Bush White House – uneventful. It’s nice. . . . It’s just a guy getting up and doing his job.”
The question to be answered in coming weeks, however, is whether Biden’s orderly presidency matches this moment of national urgency, and whether it’s sustainable in the face of multiple crises. Biden himself said last week that the government was on a “wartime” footing – then took the weekend off from public appearances.
His rigid routine contrasts with the messy drama unfolding at the Capitol, where lawmakers are furiously preparing for his predecessor’s impeachment trial. While former president Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency was unsettling for many Americans, it is unclear for now whether Biden’s more restrained style is an antidote or an overcorrection – and whether he can protect his agenda from being engulfed by the political wars raging around him.
Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist, said one of Biden’s biggest challenges will be building public pressure to motivate a split and polarized Congress to move on his agenda. “Biden has to make that case and get the public support behind it, which there’s a chance he could do,” Abramowitz said. “We’ll see how effective a job he does in getting out and making the case.”
For now, Biden appears determined to set a low-key tone privately as well as publicly. In private meetings, he is far more conversational than confrontational, according to participants, often interjecting stories from his life.
And publicly, the White House is carefully controlling what Americans see, with no direct line to Biden’s minute-to-minute thoughts the way Trump’s Twitter feed became a live stream of his id. Each weekday Biden has appeared in front of cameras for less than 30 minutes, often with a teleprompter to keep him on message.
He projected an air of studious normality on his first weekend. Biden did not appear in public on Saturday, and on Sunday he attended Mass in Georgetown. On his way back to the White House, the presidential motorcade diverted to Call Your Mother, a trendy bagel shop co-owned by Jeff Zients, Biden’s covid-19 coordinator.
Biden’s son Hunter retrieved the order, later revealed to include sesame bagels with cream cheese. His dogs, Champ and Major, joined him at the White House at the tail end of the weekend.
“Biden knows what it is to have a life,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., a close ally. “We never got a break from Trump because he didn’t want anyone to have a break – because they might think of something other than him. He had to be constantly in your face, having a presence, didn’t want anybody with a headline but him. Biden doesn’t need that.”
Trump was capable of unleashing Twitter storms late at night or early in the morning, often made up of numerous angry or insulting tweets. Biden in contrast tweeted 42 times in his first six days, the vast majority sent during working hours.
One of his few late-night tweets noted the death of baseball Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron (“he wasn’t just chasing a record, he was helping us chase a better version of ourselves”). Another confirmed that chocolate chip is his favorite ice cream flavor.
Few of Biden’s social media messages have included anything that could be seen as controversial; rather they often read like fortune cookies.
“With unity, we can do great things,” read one.
“I know times are tough, but help is on the way,” read another.
“We will get this virus under control,” he wrote Thursday, following up on Saturday with: “We will get through this, together.”
In many ways, Biden the president is a continuation of Biden the candidate. During his campaign, he fell into a regular schedule in which he attempted to surf on top of the news rather than create any waves.
He would hold several events a week, often carefully scripted with a teleprompter in place to encourage the famously meandering politician to stay on message. About once a week he would take a half-dozen questions from reporters. Rarely if ever did he attempt to become an omnipresent force.
Jill Biden often pitched her husband by promising that under a Biden administration, Americans would be able to read the newspaper without getting upset.
“When you go to bed that night, you don’t worry about a crashing economy or corruption in government,” she said during a fundraiser in September. “You don’t think about our government at all because you know that a team of talented, thoughtful, honest public servants are in the White House.”
His early days have featured a drumbeat of policy announcements, dutifully explained by fact sheets, conference calls and experts. While the Trump administration’s regular promise to stage an “infrastructure week” became a running joke – Trump was inevitably distracted by other topics – Biden has unwaveringly stuck to his themes.
Last Thursday – Biden’s first full day as president – he focused on the pandemic, followed by economic relief on Friday. Monday centered on a push to “buy American.” Tuesday the focus was racial equity, followed by climate change on Wednesday.
His dozens of executive actions have come at a far quicker pace than his recent predecessors took. Many simply involve overturning Trump’s actions.
On climate change, Biden reentered the United States into the Paris accords and rescinded the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. On coronavirus, he reversed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization and imposed a mask mandate on federal property. He also has altered immigration enforcement and has expanded aid to the poor.
Some Republicans say Biden is using his moderate style to mask radical actions. “President Biden is talking like a centrist – he is using the words of the center, talking about unity – but he is governing like someone from the far left,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Friday.
Liberals say he is simply reacting to the moment.
“The fact that Joe Biden has been seen as a moderate over many years can cloud the fact that here is a person thrust into the biggest concatenation of crises that any new president has faced in generations,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich. “And the way I read his early actions is that he is intent on meeting the moment fully.”
Calls to foreign leaders have also been conducted in a traditional order, starting with Canada and Mexico, then disclosed with dense paragraphs summarizing each discussion. Trump’s foreign calls, in contrast, yielded some of his most unpredictable moments, including a talk with the president of Ukraine that led to his first impeachment after he urged an investigation of the Bidens.
Biden is also leaving his imprint in less-public ways. On the afternoon of his inauguration, as he entered the Oval Office for the first time as president, he walked near newly-installed photos of his career leading up to the recent moment of his swearing-in. He passed boxes stacked neatly in the hallway, new computer monitors in the offices and a basket filled with chocolate chip cookies and saltwater taffy.
That night, Biden took his grandchildren on a tour of the West Wing, showing them the press briefing room.
He has not been able to entirely avoid the off-the-cuff comments for which he is known and that his staff often has to clean up.
Pressed last week by a reporter on whether his goal of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days was too low, he snapped, “Come on, gimme a break, man.” When Fox News’ Peter Doocy asked what he discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden replied with a smile, “You,” adding, “He sent his best.”
Biden’s early days also show a determination to carefully pick his political battles. That’s been especially true regarding the Senate, where Biden has declined to weigh in on whether the filibuster should be eliminated and almost completely sidestepped questions about Trump’s impeachment proceedings
Biden’s allies acknowledge there is a risk in avoiding fights that could affect his agenda – both the filibuster and impeachment could make it hard to pass legislation in coming weeks. But they say the president may be strategically delaying any intervention until later.
“There are times when a president engaging in mechanics or substance with House or Senate leadership or other members, that can be very productive and fruitful,” said Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa. “But at times you have to step back and let it play out within the chambers and see if you can engage later in the process.
“My guess is that kind of more detailed engagement on policy and mechanics will come later,” he added. “He has a strategy for getting these things done.”
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The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey contributed to this report.