American politics feels quieter with Joe Biden in the White House. The president's Twitter feed hasn't gone dark, but it's gone dull. Biden doesn't pick needless fights or insert himself into cultural conflicts. It's easy to go days without hearing anything the president has said, unless you go looking.
But the relative quiet is deceptive: Policy is moving at a breakneck pace. The first weeks of the Biden administration were consumed by a flurry of far-reaching executive orders that reopened America to refugees, rejoined the Paris climate accords and killed the Keystone XL oil pipeline, to name just a few. Now the House has passed, and the Senate is considering, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a truly sweeping piece of legislation that includes more than a half-dozen policies — like a child tax credit expansion that could cut child poverty by 50% — that would be presidency-defining accomplishments on their own.
It goes on. The White House just sent Congress the most ambitious immigration reform bill in years. It midwifed a deal to get Merck to mobilize some of its factories to produce Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, and now Biden is saying there should be enough of a supply for every American adult to get vaccinated by the end of May. Imagine! The administration is also working on an infrastructure package that, if early reports bear out, will be the most transformational piece of climate policy — and perhaps economic policy — in my lifetime. Biden is blitzing.
This is roughly the opposite of how Donald Trump approached his presidency. Trump combined an always-on, say-anything, fight-anyone communications strategy with a curious void of legislative ambition. He backed congressional Republicans' unimaginative and ultimately doomed Obamacare repeal effort, and then signed a package of tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy. It was bog-standard, Paul Ryan-conservatism — nothing like the populist revolution Trump promised on the campaign trail. Trump signed plenty of executive orders, but when it came to the hard work of persuading others to do what he wanted, he typically checked out, or turned to Twitter.
Even so, Trump convinced many that he was a political genius whose shamelessness had allowed him to see what others had missed: You didn't win by being liked, you won by being all anyone ever talked about, even if they were cursing your name. "Very often my readers tried to persuade me there's no such thing as bad publicity, and Trump had proven that," Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, told me. "All that mattered was you were occupying space in the spectacle — not what was actually happening to you in that glare."
One rebuttal to that theory was always obvious. "Trump never got over 50% approval," Rosen said. "He's a widely hated man, a one-term president." For all the talk of Teflon Don, Trump paid a price for his antics and affronts and scandals. Bad publicity actually is bad publicity.
But another way of looking at it is that Trump's communication strategy was successful in getting Trump what he actually wanted: Attention, not legislation. Biden wants legislation, not attention, and that informs his team's more targeted approach. "You can be all over every newscast and insert yourself in every conversation, but if you aren't driving that conversation toward a focused agenda, it isn't doing you a lot of good," Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, told me.
So far, Biden's quieter strategy appears to be working. As these charts show, he gets far less media attention than Trump — even after Election Day, the share of news stories with Biden's name in the headline was less than half of what Trump got — and Google records far less search interest in his administration. But Biden is polling at about 54%, around 10 points higher than Trump at this stage of his presidency (or any stage of his presidency). More tellingly, the American Rescue Plan is polling between 10 and 20 points ahead of Biden, making it one of the most popular major pieces of legislation in recent decades. In one recent poll, Republicans were asked whether Biden's plan should be abandoned for a bipartisan alternative, and they split down the middle, with as many Republicans saying the plan should be passed as abandoned. That's remarkable.
The American Rescue Plan is a bolder, more progressive, economic package than anything a Democratic president has proposed since LBJ. But it is not, for now, a polarizing package. It's less polarizing even than Biden, who only polls at 12% among Republicans. You could chalk that up to its popular component parts, but the Affordable Care Act's individual policies were popular, too, and the bill polled around 40%. You could say it's the coronavirus crisis, but coronavirus policy is sharply polarized. I suspect Biden's calmer approach to political communication is opening space for a bolder agenda.
A few pieces of political science research are shaping my thinking here. In 2012, Stephen Nicholson, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, published an interesting paper called "Polarizing Cues." In it, Nicholson asked people their opinions of proposed housing and immigration policies, sometimes telling them that Barack Obama supported the policy and at other times telling them that George W. Bush or John McCain supported the policy. What he found was that opinions didn't much change when people heard that a political leader from their own party supported a bill. But opinions changed dramatically when you told them a political leader from the other side supported a bill — it led to sharp swings against the legislation, no matter the underlying policy content.
When I called Nicholson to ask him about the paper, he gave an insightful explanation for the results. Humans tend to see diversity in the groups we belong to, and sameness in the groups we mistrust, he said. A Democrat knows there are many ways to be a Democrat — you can be a Biden Democrat, an AOC Democrat, an Obama Democrat, a Bernie Democrat, a Clinton Democrat. So a signal from any one Democratic leader is weaker, because he or she may not be the leader you care about. But no matter which kind of Democrat you are, Republicans blur in your mind into an undifferentiated mass of awful, so a signal from their political leaders is stronger. The process works the other way, too, of course. A recent Gallup poll showed 88% of Republicans disapprove of Biden — the more Biden makes the American Rescue Plan about himself, the more they'll hate it.
Then there's the book "Stealth Democracy," by political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. They marshal a mountain of survey data to show that Americans have weak and changeable views on policy, but strong views on how politics should look and feel. Many, if not most, Americans believe "political conflict is unnecessary and an indication that something is wrong with governmental procedures," they write. The more partisan fighting there is around a bill, in other words, the more Americans begin to believe something must be wrong with the legislation — otherwise, why would everyone be so upset?
Mitch McConnell understood all of this, and he ginned up political bickering to undermine Obama's agenda. But Biden seems to understand it, too. When I talked to Bedingfield, she kept circling back to Biden's preference for rhetoric and strategies that turn down "the temperature" on American politics. But Biden isn't taking the usual Washington strategy toward that goal, which is to retreat to modest bills and quarter-measures. Instead, his theory seems to be that if you can dial down the conflict, you can dial up the policy.
I've argued before that Biden's central insight in the campaign was that negative polarization — the degree to which we loathe the other side, even if we don't much like our side — is now the most powerful force in American politics. Biden often refused to do things that would endear him to his base, because those same things would drive Republicans wild. That strategy is carrying over to his presidency. And in part because of it, the reaction to his signature legislative package, which really is a collection of policies progressives have dreamed of for years, isn't cleaving along normal red-blue lines.
Like any other communications strategy, this will work until it doesn't. Biden will have his failures, as all presidents do. But for now, it's working, in defiance of the lessons many thought Trump's presidency taught.
Speak softly and pass a big agenda. It's at least worth a try.
Ezra Klein joined New York Times Opinion in 2021. Previously, he was the founder, editor in chief and then editor-at-large of Vox; the host of the podcast, "The Ezra Klein Show"; and the author of "Why We're Polarized." Before that, he was a columnist and editor at the Washington Post, where he founded and led the Wonkblog.