Koan: a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon
ultimate dependence on reason and force them to gain sudden intuitive enlightenment.
Had someone asked me a year ago what leadership characteristics Donald Trump and Joe Biden would share as president, I would have been at a complete loss to think of even one—other than old, like me.
Perhaps not as pure an example of a koan as the sound of one hand clapping, the Trump/Biden question has assisted me to abandon dependence on reason and gain at least something like sudden enlightenment. I’m unsure whether the greater truth(s) I’ve discovered is about the two men, the office of president, or myself. I expect it’s a jumble of all three.
No matter your measure, these have not been good weeks for President Biden. The most recent opinion polls[i] peg his approval slipping to around 43 percent with a disapproval rating of 51 percent. It is the first time that his unfavorable rating has ended on top.
Approval numbers measure voter feelings of the moment. In a fast-paced world with social me-dia, those feelings can—and often do—turn on the proverbial dime. However, the numbers beg the question--what are the chances President Biden will do a double-reverse and once again end up on top? More to the point, what will his failing to do so mean for national climate policy over the next several months?
Biden, like any president, is having to face intractable issues. Today those range from the close of a twenty-year war to tens of thousands of immigrants escaping unspeakable harms knock-ing on the nation’s doors.
Problems including a large portion of the population politicizing proven medical treatments in defense against a pandemic. Issues like climate change that Biden, himself, has called the number one issue facing humanity.
Are today’s presidential problems any worse than those faced by presidents before him? I think everyone can agree that being “Leader of the Free World” is no easy task. To perform it well requires a willingness to confront current realities—no matter how overwhelming they may seem at the time.
Throughout these past weeks, the most worrisome reports on President Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, the pandemic 2.0, and the economy are those from unnamed inside sources not authorized to comment. Yet, they have.
What they’re “not reporting” is that Biden exhibits a stubbornness that frightens his staff from approaching him with the most current information. Information he needs to make a reasoned decision about incredibly complex matters.
“He is firmly rooted in his beliefs, giving him a stubborn streak and even
a temper on occasion, those around him say.”
Amie Parnes and Hanna Trudo write that rather than admitting to the reality of the situation, Biden used his national address following the end of the Afghanistan war to double even triple down on how US troops were withdrawn from the country and the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies. (Emphasis added) It’s a troubling observation and reminiscent of how Trump was reported to respond to such issues.
Saying something often enough or loud enough doesn’t make it true. Reality is reality. Although it can certainly be changed, it first needs to be recognized, or actions may have little impact, or worse—have untoward and unfortunate consequences.
It’s fair to say that a president’s voter approval ratings have an impact on the chances of his proposed policies getting through Congress and onto his desk for signature. Executive orders get you only as far as the next president who holds opposing views. It is as true of climate issues as it is of healthcare and voting rights.
Voter polls are barometers of job performance. Love them or hate them, presidents should heed them.
Members of Congress are inveterate poll watchers. A very popular president is likely to have the political swag to keep members of his own party in line and those of the opposing camp nervous—an unpopular chief executive not so much.
President Biden, unlike former president Trump, has shown himself a willing listener. A listener who, upon hearing something he doesn’t like, doesn’t threaten to flay and primary them on their way out the door. In fact, one unnamed Biden advisor lamented that he absolutely listens to people; that’s why his briefings take forever.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump could not appear to be more different when it comes to management style. Trump listens to no one and expects—nay, forces—everyone to believe his lies. Biden listens to everyone, and yet no one. It’s as if the voices of staff and congressional leaders just become white noise.
Listening is active, not passive—or should be. If the listener has no intention of changing their mind in the presence of good information, why have the 135 policy and technology offices and 6,574 personnel that support the office of president?
There’s no “me” in team, as the coaches say. Neither is there an “I.”
Biden and the Democratic leaders in Congress have roughly 100 days to implement the President’s sweeping once-in-a-generation plans on infrastructure, climate change, health-care, and a just economy. It’s a heavy lift, made heavier by razor-thin congressional majorities and intra-party conflicts.
Experience was one of the major reasons voters chose Biden over Trump. Experience, however, should not be allowed to trump present-day realities. Generals fight the previous war. Presidents must fight the current one.
I can relate to Biden’s feeling that he’s seen it all before and his urge to rely on his decades of experience to short-circuit the decisionmaking process. We think we’ve seen all this before, but we haven’t.
It is a new world, and yesterday’s experiences don’t necessarily translate to today’s realities. Politics is a contact sport, although it can be played civilly. What the nation needs now is toughness, not a kindly uncle who reminisces about “back in the day.” C’mon, Mr. President, get in there and fight.
[i] The Washington Post-ABC News poll and NPR/PBS/Marist College poll.
Photo credit: The People’s House by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.