Saturday, April 17, 2021
April 17, 2021

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McManus: Revolution of modest expectations

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If the Biden White House were a factory, there would be sign at the front gate: 68 days without a presidential gaffe.

What has come over Joe Biden? His first two months as president haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been as close to it as this 78-year-old career politician has come in his long and bumpy career. He passed his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in only 51 days; now he’s working on a $3 trillion recovery plan – for an economy that’s already growing thanks to accelerating vaccinations.

And he held his first full-scale news conference without forgetting who he was or exhibiting any of the other signs of mental decline that Donald Trump warned us about.

Biden still gets tangled up in words now and then. And like many politicians, he sometimes exaggerates or bends statistics to his liking. But he’s certainly not been a “gaffe machine” (as he once called himself). Biden has belatedly learned message discipline. Early in his presidential campaign, he engaged in unscripted exchanges with voters and reporters, but once the coronavirus imposed a lockdown, the candidate discovered that he fared better with a little less exposure. It’s no accident that Biden waited longer to hold his first news conference than any other modern president.

That irritated some members of the media, but it probably comes as a relief to voters. Most important, perhaps, Biden has landed on a deceptively simple political strategy: Set modest expectations and then exceeded them. He’s underpromising and overperforming. That’s a recipe for success in any line of work.

Case in point: the goals Biden set for the national vaccination program. The first target he set, 100 million vaccinations in 100 days, was a catchy slogan but an easy-to-reach lowball; we got there in 58 days. Even Biden’s new goal of 200 million vaccinations is not much of a stretch; it’s merely the number that will be reached if the current pace of immunization continues.

Biden has relentlessly avoided promising too much. “I can’t guarantee we’re going to solve everything,” he said.

Yes, he’s got a long list of campaign promises, including gun control, fighting climate change and reforming immigration, but he’s made it clear he’ll turn to them only after taming the coronavirus and reviving the economy.

“I got elected to solve problems,” he said. “And the most urgent problem facing the American people … was COVID-19 and the economic dislocation.” Everything else, he said, comes second.

That’s sound strategy. A president who tries to get everything done risks accomplishing nothing.

To be sure, Biden may face rough waters ahead; plenty can go wrong, and some of it will. Most Trump voters will never warm to him; progressives will be disappointed when he doesn’t pass every item on their wish list; Senate Republicans will fight tenaciously to thwart his agenda. But the Biden we’re seeing now, putting one foot in front of the other, is the most effective Joe Biden ever seen.

Maybe there’s something to be said for electing a lifelong politician who knows how to make government work. Maybe Biden’s age and experience have turned out to be advantages, not handicaps.

Or perhaps it’s even simpler: Maybe character is still what matters most.

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