In governance, as in life, managing expectations is everything. Don’t tell a child, “We’ll be there in 10 minutes,” if you can’t guarantee that. “We’ll be there soon” is appropriately ambiguous. “We’ll get there when we get there” is better and beats down any undue hopes of those itching to escape their car seat.
Presidents face this all the time. If you’re at war and win a battle, you remind the audience that the conflict remains hard and is not over. The night of the D-Day invasion of France, Franklin Roosevelt did not do a victory lap. He offered the country a prayer so solemn that if you read it now, you would assume the Normandy landing had been a defeat: “And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.” After the Union victory at Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln expanded the goals of the war to a “new birth of freedom.” He did not spike the ball. This was wise, because most of 1864 was a slaughter-fest for the Union. Lincoln was convinced he’d lose his reelection bid to the Democratic nominee, George McClellan, his nemesis and the Union general he had relieved of command. William Tecumseh Sherman’s victories in the South turned public opinion and gave Lincoln a second term.
Biden’s Thursday night COVID-19 speech from the State Dining Room—a setting that made him look alone with the burden of leadership or like a realtor selling a colonial—was all about minimizing expectations. There was none of this summer’s talk about “independence” from the vaccine. “This is going to take some time,” Biden whispered. “We’re in the tough stretch.” As JFK said during his 1961 inaugural of the Cold War, a speech a teenage Biden saw, this is a “long, twilight struggle.”
When you get past all of the enumerated steps outlined in the president’s plan, the bottom line of the Biden approach is cracking down and cracking heads. This was Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino Biden in full “Get off my lawn” angry murmur. “Our patience is running thin,” Biden said to the jab free. There was no more c’mon-in-the-water’s-fine. It was a series of demands. If you work for the feds as an employee or contractor, you have to get a shot—no dodging with frequent testing. If you work for a company with 100 or more employees, you either get a shot or get tested often. We’ll use Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, and any other program we can to make sure health care workers and educators get shots. He cited Fox News by name for requiring vaccinations—and then attacked Ron DeSantis and Gregg Abbott by name for their war on school districts with mask mandates. “Pandemic politics,” Biden sniffed. He vowed that the feds would reimburse any educators who had their salaries cut for defying the Florida and Texas governors’ anti-mask crusade. Biden also implored where he couldn’t use his power, even asking concert venues to impose vaccination requirements.
It’s an intelligent approach—and too long coming. Talk about snowflakes. Talk about personal responsibility. Cosseting the anti-vax, vax-hesitant, vax-dyspeptic, vax-skeptical, vax-stupid crowd is costing lives. Putting some financial pressure on these people makes sense. If it’s that important to them, they can forego being a GS-13.
But will it work? If you’re a fed who refuses to get vaxxed, you don’t get shown the door right away. There are disciplinary procedures, union rules, and any number of ways to slow-walk paying the price for one’s antediluvian medical views. Will companies crack down quickly? Will the new rules risk a backlash in which people who would get a shot now put their back up out of some warped sense of liberty? We don’t know, but we’re finally going to find out.
Pissed-off Biden is a pretty effective Biden. When he berated unruly airline passengers with a grandfatherly plea—“Show some respect”—it cut through a lot of mealy-mouthed descriptions of this horrible airport summer.
Andrew Cuomo is in political exile, but while he’s on Elba, Biden could take a page from the former governor’s book and do these talks more often. You don’t want to dislodge Fauci and other voices of authority. But a president who comes out every three weeks and says “Here’s where we are, and here’s what we’re going to adjust” will be appreciated even if circumstances get worse. Biden’s job approval rating is way down, but he’s still personally pretty popular. Using the latter to boost the former makes sense, so talking more often is good.
Tools was a big word in the talk. The president said that “we have the tools to combat the virus, if we can come together as a country and use those tools.” That’s right, for now. He should raise the stakes, though. Make it clear that we have the tools now, but we might not if we don’t act soon. A president who has no problem raising apocalyptic imagery when it comes to climate change shouldn’t suggest that we’ll always have the arsenal to defeat COVID-19.
Between this speech and Biden’s no-apologies tone during the Afghanistan collapse, we’re seeing a different side of him—angrier, more insistent, a tad defensive. Typically, you’d think that was a bad set of traits in a politician. But in a fractured America, it makes more sense than being the let’s-hug-it-out president or pining for an anachronistic era of bipartisanship. It’s not quite the Biden who won—and he did win—in November, but it seems fitting for the moment. It’s more tough love than kumbaya, and it better reflects the temper and snappishness he’s kept from public view. Weirdly, I kind of like it.