Spoiler alert: Joe Biden is not the best president ever. Then again, neither was Donald Trump, Barack Obama, or George W. Bush. And though some are likely to disagree, none of those four has been the worst, either.
Yet, Biden is distinct from the other three, and not just because two of them served for eight years and the other for four, while he’s only been at this for a little over six months. Biden’s different because at least to this point, he is, quite remarkably, universally perceived as unremarkable. Here’s what I mean:
At some point in mid-2002, when the Afghanistan War was well underway but before we toppled Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, I remember rumblings about how Bush – who at the time was barely off his staggering 90 percent approval rating – being discussed as one of the all-time top five chief executives, maybe even ahead of Reagan and FDR and alongside Washington and Lincoln. Mind you, such discussions were not taking place in presidential think tanks or academic conferences; they were impressions shared by random Bush supporters.
Neither was Obama considered the best ever by presidential historians, but many run-of-the-mill Obama fans bestowed that honor upon him. And Trump once boasted that even if he were to shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, he wouldn’t lose any voters. He never put that to the test, but he did enough to trigger the House of Representatives to impeach him, twice. Yet in the minds of multitudes of his supporters, he remains the greatest president ever.
Bush has long lost his luster – it’s been nearly 20 years now – as America grew war-weary because things in Iraq were considerably more complicated than, say, the swift, slam-dunk win in Grenada in the early 80s. But finding someone to rank Obama or Trump as all-time number one, even today, is far from rare. Not so with Biden. I don’t know if anyone would claim, even just for shock value, that Biden’s the all-time best. And if the Founding Fathers were around, they’d probably be happy about that – but not for the self-serving egotistical reasons one might assume.
In fact, with the notable exception of Alexander Hamilton, most of the Constitution’s Framers had no intention of elevating presidents to the status of monarchs. In fact, when George Washington’s entourage suggested making him king, he quickly set them straight, reminding them that the whole Revolution thing was done for the express purpose of not having to be governed by a king.
Contrary to popular belief, Washington’s immediate successors were not extraordinary presidents. John Adams and his son, namesake, and fellow president detested standing on ceremony; both were rather quiet intellectuals. In stark contrast, Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, is fancied as America’s first philosopher, and his protégé and successor, James Madison, essentially wrote the Constitution. But all of those great men did far more for the country outside the Oval Office than within it (ok, so it wasn’t actually an oval office back then, but you get the idea…).
Personality and circumstances, respectively, resulted in Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln emerging as the presidential standouts who followed James Monroe and preceded Theodore Roosevelt. And though that first President Roosevelt remains a larger-than-life hero of mythical proportions, it was actually his immediate predecessor, William McKinley, who set the wheels in motion to transform the presidency into a truly influential executive power.
In fact, before the Republican Party was created, primarily to abolish slavery, the major political party that emerged in opposition to Jacksonian Democrats was the Whigs, who wanted to dethrone “King Andrew” Jackson, as they called him. They specifically favored a dominant Congress and a comparatively less formidable president. Fast forwarding to 2021, it looks as if with Joe Biden, the Whigs may have finally gotten their wish.
Biden’s supporters don’t call him the best ever. Not because they’re more rational than their counterparts who thought that of Bush, Obama, and Trump, but because Biden doesn’t inspire that same type of euphoric awe.
Back in the 1970s, when game shows dominated daytime television, Let’s Make a Deal often forced contestants either to shoot for the moon or to play it safe. They could trade in a waffle iron for an envelope containing $200 in cash (that’s nothing to sneeze at; in today’s dollars, that’s over $1000 – and quickly rising!), or whatever’s behind Curtain Number Two, which could be a brand new car, or a case of Turtle Wax. When it comes to presidential elections, Americans like to dream. They’re usually willing to take their chances and gamble on what’s behind that curtain. But last November, they took the cash. A new car would be worth 20 times that amount. No one would give them a hero’s welcome for ‘winning big’ on the game show. But they didn’t care.
Those Americans who voted for Joe Biden did so not because they thought he’d be the best, but because they were confident enough that, unlike his three immediate predecessors, he wouldn’t be called the worst. They didn’t vote for him because they’d support him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, but because he’d be the last person they’d ever think would do such a thing.
Biden’s presidency is, of course, still in its infancy, and it’s easier to predict next spring’s Kentucky Derby winner than to prognosticate how his remaining three years (or more) will turn out. But the dichotomy is worth exploring. Trump was a thrill-a-minute skydive: exhilarating to some, horrifying to others. Biden is a quiet evening at home.
The question remains, though, whether Americans’ newfound penchant for lethargy is a temporary reaction to Trump drama fatigue, or is a paradigm shift that will shape the next few decades. Will Americans sleep off their hangover and go drinking and partying again tomorrow night, or is this a serious lifestyle change?
Hamilton might have hoped it’s just a phase; Henry Clay would hope it’s here to stay.