WASHINGTON >> Joe Biden is a month into his presidency and at least one pattern is clear. He doesn’t want to talk about the “the former guy.”
That guy is Donald Trump. But if Biden is reluctant to say Trump’s name too much, a lot of what he has been doing has been in direct contrast to his predecessor’s legacy.
On policy, symbolism and style, from the Earth’s climate to what’s not on his desk (Trump’s button to summon a Diet Coke), Biden has been purging Trumpism however he can in an opening stretch that is wholly unlike the turmoil and trouble of his predecessor’s first month.
The test for Biden is whether his stylistic changes will be matched by policies that deliver a marked improvement from Trump, and a month is not long enough to measure that. Further, the length of Biden’s honeymoon is likely to be brief in highly polarized Washington, with Republicans already saying he has caved to the left wing of the Democratic Party.
The first time the nation saw Biden in the Oval Office, he sat behind the Resolute Desk wearing a mask. Trump, of course, had eschewed masks, and made their use a culture war totem and political cudgel.
Though Biden wore a mask in the campaign, seeing it on the face of the new president in the Oval Office made for a different message. Biden wished to make a sharp break with his predecessor while his administration came to own the deep and intractable crises that awaited him.
With executive orders, policy pronouncements and the stirrings of legislation, Biden set out to unwind the heart of Trump’s agenda on immigration, the pandemic and more.
“The subtext under every one of the images we are seeing from the White House is the banner: ‘Under new management’,” says Robert Gibbs, press secretary for President Barack Obama.
“Whether showing it overtly or subtly, the message they are trying to deliver, without engaging the former president, is to make sure everyone understands that things were going to operate differently now and that hopefully the results would be different, too.”
In executive actions, Biden reversed Trump’s course on the environment and placed the Obama health law at the center of the pandemic response with an extended enrollment period for the insurance program that Trump swore to kill.
The Iran nuclear deal that Biden’s predecessor abandoned is back on the diplomatic plate. The United States is back in the World Health Organization as well as the Paris climate accord.
But that only goes so far. The world wants to see how far Biden will actually go in making good on climate goals, whether he will steer more help to poorer countries in the pandemic and whether his words of renewed solidarity with NATO may only last until the next pendulum swing of U.S. politics.
In addition, Biden faces the reality that over the past four years China has moved in to fill the void left by the U.S. on trade, and allies have learned to rely less on the U.S. during the more hostile Trump era.
One month into Trump’s presidency, he had already lost his national security adviser and his choice for labor secretary to scandal. The revolving door of burned-out, disgraced or disfavored aides was already creaking into motion. Some of his prime initiatives were blocked by courts.
Biden’s first month has been comparatively drama-free, with many of his Cabinet picks approved.
After 40 years in Washington, eight years as Obama’s vice president and two failed presidential campaigns before his successful one, Biden has had a lifetime to think about how to get rolling as president.
There have been challenges nonetheless: the distraction of Trump’s post-presidential impeachment trial, a more narrowly divided Senate than his predecessor faced and a nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget who’s been busy deleting years of social media posts assailing Republicans and some on the Democratic left.
The Democrat framed his first month as one to start to “heal the soul” of the nation and restore the White House as a symbol of stability and credibility.
Gone are the predawn Trump tweets that rattled Washington with impromptu policy announcements and incendiary rhetoric. Gone are rosy projections about the virus, with ill-fated promises that the nation is “rounding the corner” on the pandemic.
Biden has leveled with the public about the pandemic.
“You had the former guy saying that, well, you know, we’re just going to open things up, and that’s all we need to do,” Biden told his first town-hall meeting as president, this past week. “We said, no, you’ve got to deal with the disease before you deal with getting the economy going.”
The president and his team have been deliberately setting expectations low — particularly on vaccinations and school reopening — setting up the prospect of a political win simply by exceeding modest goals.
The daily press briefings are back, this time with sign language. Pets roam the White House lawn again. Fires crackle in the White House fireplace.
At his town hall event, Biden repeatedly talked about how he doesn’t want to talk about the former guy.
“I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump,” he said. “For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people.”
That’s a tall order. The ex-president maintains his hold on millions of supporters and his lock on much of the Republican Party, whether he ends up running again or not.