When President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping ended their 3 1/2 hour video conversation this month, many headlines and instant analyses focused on the fact that there were no major breakthroughs announced in the relationship.
Politico’s Phelim Kine wrote, “President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping telegraphed low expectations for their non-summit ... and in that they delivered.” CNN led with the fact that the event produced no major breakthroughs and added that Beijing had already declared victory.
Administration spokespeople had repeatedly briefed the news media that breakthroughs were not the purpose of the event. Indeed, the purpose of the meeting was to establish a cordial, open, candid leaders' dialogue at the center of the most important bilateral relationship in the world.
Not only is that a big deal in its own right, but given the complex, often fraught nature of the U.S.-China ties, such meetings that produce less heat and more light are just what the relationship needs.
The benefits of boring foreign policy
Yet any praise was grudging and faint (even as some areas of progress were announced) and the majority of the coverage of the event hinted at disappointment. You could almost feel the reporters longing for a leader who sent foreign tyrants love letters or who shocked the world by taking the Russian president’s views over those of his own intelligence community.
Neglected in much of the coverage was the fact that sometimes, foreign policy is about process and workaday exchanges that do not and are not intended to produce headlines. In fact, in foreign policy, boring is often good. This is true more broadly, in fact, about governing.
What is important or valuable is not often what makes the best television or produces the most clicks on the internet. Sometimes the best work our leaders do is dull or slow or complicated, too nuanced or arcane to produce 64-point headlines or “Breaking News” chyrons. In this, presidents are a lot like airline pilots. While hired because they can handle emergencies when they arise, often when we notice them least they are doing their best work.
Big complex bills on infrastructure or social programs, even if they touch millions of lives, even if they are unprecedented in their scale and scope, are in many ways drier and harder to make exciting than orders banning people from America because of their religion or calls to build alligator-filled moats at the southern border. When Biden was out selling his Build Back Better vision this summer, he himself called his detailed speeches ticking off all that was in the packages “boring.”
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Being boringly competent is a description that has followed Biden from the campaign throughout the past two years. In the Los Angeles Times it was asserted that “boring is his superpower.” In The Atlantic it was argued, “Biden Should Build Back Boring.” Fox News’ Howard Kurtz wrote that “Washington has never felt duller.” Bloomberg ran a story saying “Biden’s being boring to make things happen.” The National Journal wrote, “Biden makes boring great again.” Reason wrote of the “Stealthy Economic Radicalism of Biden’s Boring Presidency.”
In response to this kind of pained media chorus that they now had to cover a man more focused on governing than tweeting or creating reality TV-like vignettes, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said over the summer that reporters should cover Hollywood if they are bored.
Setting aside for the moment any discussion of whether the problem lies more with those who would prefer to cover politics as a cage match than it does with Biden, there is an even bigger question. Does it make any difference at all whether Biden is boring or not?
Certainly, to history it probably does not. History is a blind taste test when it comes to the va-va-voom of presidents. It really only cares about results. Do you have any sense of how “exciting” Grover Cleveland was? Or Benjamin Harrison? In fact, many of our most highly regarded presidents were not, for example, considered great speakers – from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Dwight Eisenhower. There are abundant examples from history however of shining political stars of their moment who were not so great when it came to governing.
In the nearer term, it might be argued that in a purely political sense, the boring factor might matter. Biden’s approval ratings are averaging around 40%. As we look ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, Biden’s approval rating is even lower among voters in eight Senate swing states. Republicans hold a 10-point generic lead in House races.
Perhaps some of that is due to the fact that voters don’t find Biden exciting enough.
Biden: last defense against the Big Lie
That said, he did whip his flamboyant showman of an opponent in 2020. And the sagging numbers at the moment are more likely explained by the fact midterm elections tend to go against the party of incumbent presidents than any other factor. In addition, the election is a year away, and many experts say that during the year ahead we are likely to see major economic improvement, a downturn in inflationary pressures, more job creation and the benefits from Biden’s 2021 legislative agenda kicking in.
Most important, politically, quite apart from any question of his personal style, Biden represents something not boring at all – the last defense of the country against the Big Lie Republicans who are seeking to undermine democracy as Trump sought to do on Jan. 6. That is likely to be the core issue next year, and Biden’s old-school, boring commitment to things like the principle of one person one vote and defending our institutions is a very big deal indeed – and the choice between him, Democrats and the GOP could not be more dramatic.
Who needs presidential charisma when you represent the last best hope of the republic? Further, Biden is not the only messenger his party has. If Democrats can mobilize and effectively communicate the stakes in the next election and then bring to life the Biden agenda and all it means to average Americans from coast to coast, then they can produce an election outcome that is the kind of surprising twist that the press loves to write about.
David Rothkopf is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, host of "Deep State Radio," and CEO of the Rothkopf Group media and podcasting company specializing in international issues. Follow him on Twitter: @djrothkopf
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's presidency is boring. And that's OK.