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WASHINGTON — The reset of the presidential agenda is among the most popular of Washington narratives, a beloved if often unreliable attempt to use the power of narrative when the power of politics won’t do.
President Biden is about to try one of his own, starting with a press conference on Wednesday, only the second of his presidency, part of a broader effort to reverse a months-long slide in popularity that, at its outer bounds, has even seen (limited) calls for a return of Hillary Clinton in 2024.
Biden has said he will run again, but the shine of his first several months in office has worn off, while recent history hasn’t given him much to run on — or, more immediately, to help Democrats in November’s congressional midterms.
The press conference will come at a consequential and challenging time for Biden, as a politically perilous narrative is coalescing about his presidency. The last six months have seen a series of setbacks, from the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan to the recent defeat of his vaccine mandate before the Supreme Court. His domestic agenda, Build Back Better, has a seemingly slim chance of passage after moderate Senate Democrats bucked months of entreaties to grant their support. Since that defeat, his administration pivoted to voting rights reform, but those same moderates oppose the kinds of procedural changes without which GOP opposition simply cannot be overcome.
In part, the call for a reset is acknowledgment that a reset is needed, an assurance that it is coming and that it will solve the problems of the relevant party — in this case, Democrats who have grown tired of explaining to voters why schools are closed and supermarkets are empty. With the 2022 midterms nearing and the prospect of a shellacking mounting, Biden will likely signal a renewed commitment to a frustrated agenda while also trying to shift how his presidency is seen, lest he earn the most dreaded of Washington titles — the lame duck — before his presidency even reaches its midpoint.
Nor is Biden especially eager to be compared to an earlier Democratic president: Jimmy Carter. In a famous assessment of that presidency, journalist and former Carter speechwriter James Fallows described him as “more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results.”
Acutely aware of history, Biden wants to escape similar assessments of his time in office, yet his own decisions have placed him in a difficult position. During the presidential campaign, he adopted progressive rhetoric and political positions, and has continued to do so in office.
His surprising embrace of left-leaning ideas infuriated the right while raising hopes on the left that remain unmet. A year into his presidency, his administration is not so much partisan as it is adrift, battered by disenchantment and dismay. And with a conservative Supreme Court threatening the legality of any unilateral action and a recalcitrant Congress blocking legislative initiatives, Biden has no obvious path forward.
The timeless presidential reset tries to make those realities go away through the sheer bully pulpit of the presidency. That such a reset is usually announced in a public way is only natural, given how much politics is about how a story is being told.
After an anemic start to his own first term, George W. Bush tried a reset that would include, as the New York Times put it, a “renewed attention to issues like education and immigration and a vigorous discussion of values.” That was on Aug. 5, 2001. Within a month, his presidency would be utterly redefined by terrorism.
Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president, watching as his boss tried to salvage an economy battered by the credit and foreclosure crisis, which often meant giving billions to banks and corporations, then facing attacks from both left and right for doing so. In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama joked about how much he hated the bailouts and how eager he was to move beyond the crisis.
“Obama pushes reset button,” a CNN column said of the speech.
Expect similar headlines after Biden tries an agenda change with Wednesday afternoon’s press conference. Dissatisfaction with the president is rising, with the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan increasingly impossible to avoid. The coronavirus, meanwhile, seems to have the nation in an angry funk.
So the reset button will likely get pushed, in an East Room where the number of journalists will be limited because the White House remains on high alert for the coronavirus. The masks and distanced chairs alone will be a reminder that the pandemic funk continues for now.
Unlike the freewheeling Donald Trump, Biden does not take off-the-cuff questions from the press on the South Lawn. He almost never deviates from his remarks. His tweets are 280-character press releases, reviewed by senior staffers ahead of publication. That makes Wednesday’s press conference all the more consequential, presenting the media — and the public — with as unfettered access to the president as they are likely to get. It will amount to a chance for Biden to acknowledge that 2021 didn’t turn out as planned and give clues about how he might approach 2022 differently.
Presidential press conferences, described as “an example to millions of democracy at work” by the New York Times when Dwight Eisenhower delivered the first in 1955, are alluring for the narrative possibilities they offer, even if those possibilities end up being inevitably constrained by reality, as Obama learned after his own 2010 reset failed to stem a tea-party-fueled GOP takeover of the House.
Biden has held only one press conference since taking office, making him far less accessible than his predecessors. His top advisers believe that the media has been unfair to them, so they see little reason to expand that access in an open forum. Trump, of course, also decried the press as unfair, going so far as to brand the media “the enemy of the people.” But whereas Trump battled perceived bias by sparring with journalists, Biden has generally shied away from them.
The first Biden presidential press conference was in March of last year, when things felt — and were —different. If this week’s press conference is an occasion for reflection, Biden’s first amounted to something of a victory lap just months after taking office. Vaccines were available, and schools were reopening. Businesses were hiring in preparation for an almost normal spring and summer. “Biden’s not on a path to being a transitional figure,” a political consultant had recently told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s on a path to being a transformational figure.”
There were comparisons to the progressive legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, comparisons that Biden eagerly embraced. As that first press conference opened, he presented himself as the capable leader the country had needed all along, the old Washington hand coming to quell the partisan rancor.
“Help is here,” Biden said. “And hope is on the way.”
Ten months later, Biden appears to be learning what Obama did in 2009: that managing through a crisis is an utterly thankless task, and the resistance of congressional Republicans is difficult to break through, especially if fellow Democrats join their ranks, as Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have done to stifle Biden’s social spending bill and voting rights agenda.
Indeed, the moment seems to have caught Biden in a political bind with his own party as much as with the GOP. Centrists have been warning that “Democrats have gone too far to the left on key issues for educated suburban voters” and risk a bad loss in November if they don’t make a more explicit break with progressive ideas and rhetoric.
The progressive base, meanwhile, is wondering if they made a mistake in supporting Biden in 2020, when their sympathies more clearly aligned with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. “On every issue — voting rights, student debt, climate — he lets the bad actors set the terms of the debate,” an executive with the Sunrise Movement recently complained to the Hill.
The question, then, is just what kind of reset is possible. There could be some White House departures, but Biden’s core advisers have been with him for decades and are unlikely to leave. He could take executive actions, but none will prove as thrilling to the left as the rollbacks of Trump’s policies he undertook in the first days of his presidency.
That leaves little room for any kind of meaningful reset before voters weigh in come November. “Biden Stuck in the Mud,” went the headline of a recent newsletter from the political consultants Mike Murphy and Robert Gibbs. Within the confines of Washington, the president’s powers are remarkably circumscribed.
As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has argued, presidents are often enthralled by “the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics,” by being either more forceful with Congress or more clear with regular Americans. The public reset expected to be undertaken by Biden can only be seen as precisely such an effort.
Yet the effort is doomed to fail, Nyhan argues, because such an approach to the presidency vastly overestimates how much power the office actually has. Biden may say that opponents of new voting rights legislation are complicit with notorious segregationists like Bull Connor and George Wallace, but if Sinema and Manchin hold firm — and they have given no indications otherwise — the fiery rhetoric will have been for naught.
Which leaves Biden to look beyond the Beltway, to a reset of the more superficial variety: a shift in how the presidency is covered, as opposed to a more substantive shift in crafting and selling policy. Biden’s 2020 campaign was beset by criticism around how it handled the media, but the low-key approach to coverage ultimately proved successful despite a rough start to the primary.
His advisers are making more or less the same bet today, with the president set to downplay Washington drama in favor of “spending more time communicating directly with Americans,” according to an NBC News report on those plans.
Wednesday’s news conference could mark the beginning of those efforts as much as of new legislative ones, a putting behind of the frustrations of 2021 to focus on the possibilities of 2022. But, just as many New Year’s resolutions tend to fade away by February, presidential reset buttons have a way of getting jammed. Still, they will be pushed.