Presidents get to decorate the Oval Office any way they want, and it’s usually telling. Joe Biden for example, requested that five portraits be hung around the fireplace. There’s George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and one of the greatest Americans who never became president: Alexander Hamilton.
And in the middle of this esteemed group is a fifth portrait in a place of honor over the fireplace: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Biden, who will be the last president who lived during FDR’s momentous era, deeply admires our 32nd president, and it shows in both his style and way of governing.
No president since Roosevelt inherited the kind of mess that confronted Biden, and he has responded as FDR did: By throwing big money at problems. The ink on the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan is barely dry, and now the White House is set to unveil a $3 trillion infrastructure plan.
There’s also talk of reforming the biggest federal program of all: Social Security, which Roosevelt launched in 1935, and which is now paying out more cash than it’s bringing in. In Washington, the word “reform” is usually a code word for more spending.
FDR playbook on style and substance
Biden’s style — specifically how he communicates with the American people — is also a page from the FDR playbook. Two months into his presidency, he has been surprisingly disciplined and economical with his words and appearances. The verbal gaffes that dogged him throughout his long career in Washington are nowhere to be seen. I’m sure he’ll make a boo-boo eventually (he’s Joe Biden, after all) but after four years of a president who lied about everything, a gaffe on Biden’s part these days will be seen as an honest mistake, humanizing, even charming to a certain degree.
Roosevelt is remembered for his famous Fireside Chats. Forgotten, however, is how infrequently he gave them. During his 12 years in office — bookended by America’s greatest 20th century crises, the Great Depression and World War II — he took to the airwaves just 30 times. Just two or three times a year. The rarity of his appearances amped up the drama and attention when he did speak.
Biden has given just one major, prime-time address so far: His March 11 talk on the pandemic. Like Roosevelt and radio, Biden knows he could go on TV whenever he wants, and God knows there’s enough to talk about. In this 24/7 culture, some presidents, insecure and vain perhaps, think they have to flood the zone — social media, TV every day — and dominate the conversation. But like his hero from Hyde Park, Biden instinctively understands that less is more. It’s a lesson in restraint that future presidents would do well to heed.
His mannerisms also reflect a close study of Roosevelt. The Harvard-educated FDR once said he tried to imagine himself talking to a dirt-poor farmer. He used simple words, spoke slowly, and called listeners “my friends.” It came across as warm and empathetic — powerful qualities for any leader to possess.
Biden also calls people “my friends.” No doubt you’ve heard his other catchphrases, all simple and direct. “Here’s the deal, folks.” “C’mon, man!” “The fact of the matter is …” And “God love ya.”
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There is one substantive difference between FDR and Biden, though: Roosevelt gave nearly 1,000 news conferences over a dozen years. Minimizing his mobility issues, he invited reporters to crowd around his desk in the Oval Office about once a week. Biden, by contrast, hasn’t held a news conference yet.
The last new president who waited this long was “Silent” Calvin Coolidge a century ago. This will change Thursday, when Biden is scheduled to take questions from a hungry White House press corps. But it will be in the afternoon, not in prime time when it would get the most attention.
First, do no damage
The goal for any politician (or anyone in the public eye) meeting reporters is to make the points you want to make, make them again, deflect from things you don’t want to discuss and get out of the room before you do any damage. This type of environment has in the past led to trouble for Biden. White House press shops try to control such things by working up answers for anticipated questions (and having the president rehearse them like before a debate), calling (and not calling) on certain reporters and setting a time limit for the event.
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The news media is trying to gin up the drama for this, and Biden will certainly be asked about tough issues that already are challenging his smooth operation — including immigration problems at the southern border and the mass shootings in the Atlanta area and Boulder, Colorado. But he knows this and will be prepared.
If Biden’s lucky, his first news conference will be a dull affair. It will also likely be a rare one. Why? Here’s the deal. With platforms like Twitter, Facebook and all the rest at their fingertips, modern-day presidents need reporters and the press less than ever. We saw this during the campaign, when Biden gave individual interviews but rarely held news conferences. The pandemic was a good excuse to pull back even further.
White House reporters are always clamoring for more access, but the first two months of the Biden era have shown that they’re going to be disappointed. Access is limited. Leaks have been few. His spokespeople are all smiles, but quite guarded with what they share. Remember the “no-drama Obama” era? Biden so far has made that look wild.
Paul Brandus is the founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. His latest book is “Jackie: Her Transformation from First Lady to Jackie O.” Follow him on Twitter: @WestWingReport