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Biden needs to start kicking Republican butt


Biden’s early approval rating is refreshingly high—I saw one at 59%, which is way higher than trump ever had. And everyone is saying that these first days of his administration are going well. His executive actions, while perhaps not much cared about by the average Joe or Jill, are playing well to the core constituencies of the Democratic Party. He’s establishing a track record for transparency and competence (again, in sharp contract to his predecessor). His Cabinet appointees are slowly but surely being approved by the Senate. And people understand that he’s trying awfully hard to be bipartisan. So, in short, success…at least, so far.

I do see one potential problem, and that concerns Biden’s perceived forcefulness (for lack of a better word. I could have said “determination” or “strength” or “fighting spirit.”). With trump, we had an exceptionally forceful president. The guy was a bull in a china shop. You could feel his energy and self-confidence just by thinking about him. I say this, not to praise trump, whom I loathed, but merely to point out the entertainment aspect of his presidency. Whether you loved him or hated him, he made for good T.V.

Biden has a weaker “Q Score” than trump. The Q Score is a metric used by psychometricians, including advertising and marketing professionals, that measures the familiarity of a brand. Q Scores can be positive or negative, but the bottom line is that, the more potent the Q Score, the more we, the public, are aware of the person or brand involved. We think about them a lot, as we thought about trump a lot. (His fans used to taunt Democrats for letting trump get “into our heads.”) trump’s positive Q Score was very low, which meant his negative Q Score was correspondingly high, but the end result was that he dominated the media for years as one of the most famous people in the world. And, as has long been noted, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” (P.T. Barnum) and “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” (Oscar Wilde). As trump himself once remarked—entirely accurately—he was great for cable T.V. ratings.

Biden isn’t that kind of person. Democratic image-makers know that, which is why they put out the meme, early on in the campaign, that Biden’s low-key ordinariness was a net positive. It was, they suggested, just the sort of routine, non-dramatic thing American politics needs, after the Sturm und Drang of the trump era. Biden, it was said, would give us a little breathing room, so we could all calm down and get to the business of solving America’s problems.

There is an element of truth in that, but there’s also a lurking danger. Americans have always liked their presidents to be strong: Reagan was perceived as strong, and he was very popular. Jimmy Carter, for better or worse, was perceived as weak, and look what happened to him. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were perceived as somewhere in the middle: not particularly strong nor particularly weak. Like Goldilocks’ soup, they were “just right.”

With trump, the tendency of Americans to look to a strong president went into overdrive. His fans loved it, his opponents hated and feared it, but it was what it was. It was addictive and predictable, and it had a consequence: trump may have made himself a hard act to follow. No rock band wants to follow the Rolling Stones onstage. Can Biden follow trump and still command the attention and respect of the American people? (Of course, I’m eliminating the die-hard slaves of the trump cult—McCarthy, Gaetz, Taylor Greene and their ilk, who are simply beyond repair. If Jesus came back and trump called him a fake, they’d crucify him.)

I’ll be honest: whenever I see Biden live on T.V., I get a little anxious. He looks really old. He can speak forcefully one moment, but the next moment, his stutter kicks in, and he has to find his way back again. I sometimes worry that he’ll keel over in the middle of a speech. After all, he is 78. Whenever he gets through a public presentation without a hitch, I silently thank the powers that be. I’m entirely on Biden’s side. But I have to admit he doesn’t give the impression of strength, of force.

I think this is one reason why his advisors are making him so visible. He’s on T.V. a lot, signing those executive orders, introducing us to his latest appointee, or to a new committee he formed. His White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, is all over the place, not only holding briefings every day, but on the cable news talk shows. I think this is all calculated. It not only offers such a refreshing alternative to the previous administration; it is attempting to show the American people that Biden is really here, really in charge, a real person. They’re putting him out there with great frequency because they figure that quantity is better than quality, in this sense: If Biden can’t have a super-high Q Score, he can compensate for it by exposing himself on T.V. as much as possible. After all, the essence of a Q Score is familiarity of the brand, and by showing Biden over and over, he becomes a familiar product.

In a way, it’s sad that it’s come to this: we have to sell our politicians like things on T.V. commercials. But it’s been that way for a long time, and you just have to accept reality. So I expect we’ll continue to be seeing a lot of Joe Biden on T.V. I hope for his good health; it would be a disaster were something to happen to him, even with Kamala in the wings, because it would associate his administration, and the Democratic Party, with weakness. But I think Biden’s people are going to have to do much more than merely trot him out on T.V. He’s going to have to start showing cojones. He’s following a tough act; he has to show he’s at least as tough. The way to do that is to get tough: with Republicans, with McConnell and McCarthy, with “the enemy within” (as Speaker Pelosi termed it the other day).

Biden has to seal the deal with the American people that began during the primaries and continued through the election. A lot of people voted for him with reservations—not because of his policies or political philosophy, but because of his age. (Fact: He and Bernie Sanders are the same age, but Bernie has a much more forceful presence, i.e. a higher positive Q Score.) Biden has been effective when he’s outraged by Republican horrors. The American people want to see that outrage, not just hear rote but uninspiring speeches. It’s fine to say, “Can’t we all just get along?”, but most of us suspect that the answer is, No, we can’t, given the Republican history of deceit and treachery. We want Biden, the old man, to show he still has the moxie to kick butt and take names. If he doesn’t, watch that 59% approval rating start to slide.

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