What Joe Biden Learned from Ronald Reagan About Governing

The president understands the importance of serving your base and passing bills that really matter to them.

President Joe Biden this week scored a two-thirds job approval from the American public. Any way you look at it, that’s quite a number in this divisive age. Even his disapproval number – 38% – is impressive given that it mainly reflects the diehard voting bloc that denies he was ever elected.

I credit Biden’s high standing this May to his governing and political sense. And that owes a lot to a past chief executive very different in governing philosophy.

Last week, Joe and Jill Biden visited Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter in Plains, Georgia. Biden’s pilgramage to Plains was respectful, even sentimental. Forty-five years earlier, Biden, then a first-termer, backed Carter’s candidacy. Neither the Clintons nor the Obamas has made the pilgrimage to the southwest Georgia farming community where the Carter family had its peanut business and Jimmy Carter parlayed his status as a planter into a seat in the Georgia legislature before becoming governor. The Bidens’ homage reminded me of the days when Democrats bannered their national conventions with giant portraits of their partisan forebearers.

But it’s not Carter whose example the 46th president is following.  If he owes any predecessor for that 59% job approval in the new Harvard CAPS – Harris Poll, it’s the chief executive who defeated and succeeded Carter:  Ronald Reagan.

Here are the elements in Biden’s governing politics that clearly match the White House record of 1981:

Number one—Honor your partisan base.

There is an old rule in politics that the former Delaware senator has obeyed: “Dance with the one that brung ya.”  Biden wouldn’t have won the 2020 Democratic nomination were it not for that smashing victory in the make-or-break South Carolina primary. Nor has he forgotten it and the role African American voters played in it. From the outset, his appointments and policies have reflected the needs of working people, especially women of color. He made Kamala Harris his vice presidential nominee. He’s vowed to fill his first Supreme Court vacancy with an African American judge, and the president doesn’t make a move on anything—Covid-19, his jobs plan, infrastructure—without a meaningful and substantial homage to equity. That’s not a 78-year-old just acting woke. It’s at Joe Biden’s core: remembering who brung you.

This is the mirror image of what Ronald Reagan did 40 years ago.  At the top of his agenda was giving his conservative base a deep and profound statement of loyalty: that 25% across-the-board tax cut. It was the greatest broadside against the big government the Gipper could deliver.  If he could starve Washington of its tax base, he could bring the whole colossus to its knees. Cutting programs is hard, as Reagan found out and as his first Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman complained—and lost his job over the complaints. Unfunded tax cuts, on the other hand, were genius for the GOP leader.

Like Reagan, Biden has made clear that he is out to make his presidential mark with his party’s most reliable voters: progressives and Americans of color.  He is spending massively and widely. As important as the checks going out to the middle, working class and poor is the message: Big Government is coming back strong.

This wasn’t something to expect from the veteran Biden.  He was elected to the Senate in big Republican years; 1972, 1978, 1984, and 2002. He came from a state that never quite banned slavery. He came to the Senate at 30, in a chamber still dominated by Southern former segregationists and, as my colleague Matt Cooper pointed out, still had three World War I veterans. Biden grew up in that world as a moderate, now he is giving party progressives a program that reflects the policy and philosophy of the two contenders he defeated for the nomination: Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  The appreciation for this shows up vividly in Biden’s job approval figures.

Rule Number two—Focus

Biden is now known for two major initiatives: pandemic relief and infrastructure. He has insisted on keeping the trains running on this central agenda. While saying positive things about other issues, he seems determined to not let such matters clog the tracks. This was a central feature of the Reagan agenda.  While known over the years for a wide variety of right-wing policy ambitions, the 40th president centered the spotlight on the big fiscal changes he promised in the election: tax cuts and hikes in military spending.

I attribute this discipline to his Chief of Staff James A. Baker who “let Reagan be Reagan” only where it counted most politically.  It seems that Ron Klain is doing much the same for President Biden. He’s keeping the focus on Biden’s big two legislative ambitions: Covid-19 relief and infrastructure. You do not see Biden tilting at windmills but only at the legislative agenda he needs for his presidency to move forward.

Rule Number three—Audacity

Like Reagan, Biden is swinging for the fences. While there may be sticker shock and inflation down the road, his legislative agenda has given his new presidency Punch! There’s no trimming his sails because the Democrats lost seats in the House or because his victory was less commanding than the pre-balloting polls indicated. No one denies that this president’s election – and Donald Trump’s defeat – matters.

Rule Number four—Speed

Andy Warhol famously predicted that Americans would one day all enjoy their “15 minutes” of fame. Presidents have learned the hard way they get just about that many months. That’s if they are lucky. Barack Obama managed to enact the Affordable Care Act in July of his second year, and then just barely. Due to the late 1981 recession, Ronald Reagan had seen his legislative dominance vanished by his first autumn in the White House.

It is still early in the game. But should Joe Biden make a positive mark in history it will be by doing it like Ronald Reagan did: Stick to your base; keep your focus, go big; go early.  His commitment to Reagan’s governing politics is clear and it’s working.

As a former speechwriter, I’m also impressed by his rhetorical focus. It’s not that he’s a great orator. The point is he’s kept his speeches within his rhetorical abilities. And while he’s governed left, his tone has been totally middle of the road, inclusive. He hasn’t gotten drawn into culture war battles over Dr. Seuss. When he got asked about America being a racist country, he deftly said he didn’t think most people were racists but there was clearly a legacy of racism holding people back right now. He’s used the term systemic racism but in a way that calls on people’s better angels. It’s been hard to pull off but in a slow and grandfatherly way, he’s made it look easy, During the Chauvin trial, it would have been easy to make a misstep. He didn’t. Moderate tone. Left governance. Reagan governed right with a moderate tone. It worked then. It works now.

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Chris Matthews

Chris Matthew's long career as a political aide, author, broadcast host, and journalist includes a stint with the U.S. Capitol Police. Simon & Schuster is publishing his memoir, This Country: My Life in Politics and History, on June 1. He is also the author of 2013’s “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.