One of my favorite photos of all time comes from a 2012 March Madness basketball game that then-president Barack Obama attended with then-British prime minister David Cameron. The picture captures the two men perfectly. It shows Obama sitting courtside with a hot dog in his hand pointing and lecturing in that quintessential Obama way, while Cameron glowers and appears to contemplate all the places he’d rather be — getting an endoscopy, bombing Libya, anywhere else on the planet, really.
The question inherent in that photo isn’t why Obama appeared to be hectoring a European ally: Obama would have hectored the Dalai Lama if given the chance. The question is: what was the most powerful leader on earth doing at a Mississippi Valley State basketball game in the first place? Shouldn’t he have been in the situation room or enjoying a foie gras parfait at some Michelin-star restaurant? And even if he did want to watch some hoops, couldn’t he have ordered up a private box above the court with hors d’oeuvres available upon chin stroke? Or watched it at the White House’s personal movie theater?
Barack Obama and David Cameron eat a hot dog as they watch the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers take on the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils in the first round of the 2011 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, March 2012(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
The reason Obama didn’t do those things, or at least one reason he didn’t, is the same reason he’d taken the Russian premier out for cheeseburgers two years earlier: the endless democratic posturing of the presidency. It isn’t enough for Americans to be told from the time they’re in utero that anyone can be president when they grow up. Even after getting elected, those same presidents must forever be washing their hands in what they perceive to be the customs of the common man. The link between tribune and plebs can never be severed, no matter how ridiculous or hypocritical it makes everyone involved appear. Once upon a time, JFK hoarded Cuban cigars and LBJ danced with Princess Margaret at a state dinner. Today, presidents duck out of world-important diplomatic functions to go take a number at Ray’s Hell Burger.
Now Joe Biden is getting in on the act.
Biden’s everyman posturing was always going to be a bit different, if only because he isn’t necessarily such a bad fit for the role. Biden has labored mightily throughout his career to maintain a common touch, even as he’s become one of Washington’s most recognizable elites. And that common touch isn’t just for show. I was once on a plane from DC to Hartford only to realize that more than half the Connecticut congressional delegation was onboard with me. It is genuinely rare for politicians to take a train anywhere, yet that’s what Biden did for many decades, commuting via Amtrak back and forth to work. One of the reasons he won the presidency is that he was able to convey those working-class tendencies without forfeiting the professionalism that contrasted him with Donald Trump.
Yet if President Biden has yet to be sighted shotgunning a Natty Light or streaking at an outdoor movie theater, that’s only because those pleasures aren’t available to us right now. At the moment, the average American isn’t headed to the dining car; he’s stuck at home. And the Americans who voted for Biden are especially worried about masks, social distancing, the weirdly paradoxical imperative to never question the science. So it is that Biden must participate in all that too, that he’s rarely spotted in public without a mask on, even when he isn’t standing near anyone. Some of this is because of his age — at 78, he doesn’t want to get sick — but some of it is hip left-wing populist theater. The same impulse that drove Obama to order burgers and Trump to hug the flag now necessitates that Biden share in our COVID pain.
It’s the nature of the job, yet it must feel demeaning. Like all liberals, Biden repeatedly promised during his campaign to ‘listen to the scientists’ (as opposed to we conservatives, who get all our medical advice from witch doctors and horoscopes). Yet even he must have been tempted to roll his eyes when, as Cockburn noted, he recently spent an afternoon in a White House office listening as Dr Fauci lectured him about what a coronavirus protein is. There was exactly zero point to this little biology lesson. Biden is not a physician or an epidemiologist; he’s the President of the United States. Yet there he was, ‘listening to the scientists’ because that’s what the rest of us are supposed to do, with a cameraman conveniently on-hand to capture the entire thing.
This is pure egalitarian theater, and at some point it becomes not relatable but infantilizing. Sending the President back to high school is a charmless and patronizing thing; all the more so when it’s done on taxpayer time. But it’s also what we get for demanding that the occupant of the Oval Office be Just Like Us, even though he very much is not. What to do about this? Perhaps we should look to our most refreshingly unorthodox of presidents, Calvin Coolidge. Few men have ever worked as hard as Silent Cal, and few have ever been so gloriously private about it. Coolidge wouldn’t have been caught dead turning his lunch into a photo-op; he was such a temperamental ghost that at his own wedding party a guest inquired as to whether he was deaf.
As Coolidge himself put it, ‘I think I have a reputation of being conservative, which I am, because I do not make so loud a noise as some others.’ That’s what we need more of today. The president ought to be our detached sphinx, not licking burger grease off his fingers as he dashes off to a pottery class. It’s time to make the presidency an elite office once again, in that it’s time to make it easy for the common man to ignore.
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