In our polarized political era, presidents have increasingly become the faces of their parties, operating as symbols of what their parties value — and what the opposing party rejects.
Recent Republican presidents have doubled down on ideology and conservative social issues. Democratic presidents after Ronald Reagan have been a bit more cautious on social issues but have still served as symbolic party leaders focused on identity and the connections Democrats have to a range of demographic groups.
But with President Biden, this analogy begins to break down.
Yes, he is popular with some of the party’s core supporters, in particular Black Americans, who helped him win the Democratic primary, but he’s not really a cultural figure like former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump — one reason Republicans have found Biden so difficult to demonize. Rather, he has adopted a “quiet” approach to the presidency, in which he seems more content with keeping an ideological coalition together than with advancing any one perspective.
At this point, though, it’s hard to know just how much of a shift this marks — it’s possible that Biden is just a blip — but is his presidency a potential shift in the relationship between presidents and their political parties?
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To answer this question, it’s helpful to look at how this relationship has evolved over time. For instance, presidents weren’t always party leaders. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, presidents were often creatures of their parties, dependent on state and local party leaders to nominate them, and as such, often obligated to reward them with appointments in the federal government.
Scholars don’t agree on exactly when or why this changed, but travel and telecommunications certainly helped presidential candidates — and presidents once in office — directly build support in the electorate without going through the parties. What’s more, reforms to the primary system in the early 1970s gave voters more influence over the nomination process. Together, these changes did a lot to make presidents the faces of their parties.
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Now the president’s role is essentially to support the party’s cultural values and priorities. For Republican presidents like Reagan and George W. Bush, this has meant adopting the rhetoric and priorities of the evangelical conservative movement, an important faction of the GOP.1 For Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton and Obama, it was about identity. Both were younger — Clinton represented a generational shift in leadership — and Obama made history as the first Black president.
These connections spoke to the parties’ priorities, but they were also at least somewhat symbolic. Reagan, for example, was the preferred candidate of the religious right, but he advanced few legislative accomplishments that reflected its agenda and also appointed a moderate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court who supported abortion rights. Bush, in the meantime, was an evangelical, and although he delivered for Christian conservatives by successfully banning most stem-cell research and appointing two conservative justices to the Supreme Court, he fell short in his efforts to pass a constitutional amendment that prohibited same-sex marriage. It did set off a wave of similar bills on the state level — many of which were successful — but ultimately, this marked a defeat for the religious right, as the tides dramatically turned in favor of same-sex marriage. And although Clinton showed youthful irreverence by playing the saxophone on late-night television and answering questions about his underwear on MTV, these were campaign tactics with little connection to governing priorities. Obama spoke about his family background often but didn’t talk about race bluntly, and there’s disagreement as to how much his presidency helped Black Americans. Finally, Trump’s appeal was clearly rooted in symbolism. Despite being an unlikely mouthpiece for the religious right, he was popular with white evangelicals nonetheless. His rhetoric around immigrants and other minority groups also addressed a politics of grievance and racial resentment that has become increasingly salient among Republicans.
It’s worth noting, however, how these culturally symbolic presidents were often reactions to one another. Clinton was morally flexible and tough to pin down, while Bush was resolute and religious. At the same time, though, where Bush was incurious and parochial, Obama was intellectual and cosmopolitan. In contrast with those traits, Trump presented himself as straightforward and nationalistic.
But Biden isn’t really any of these. And that’s not an accident.
Many Democratic voters and leaders favored Biden precisely because he was seen as a “safe, old white guy,” as problematic as that thinking is. It’s not just about demographics, though. Compared with his immediate predecessors, Biden has also stayed out of the limelight as president. In the new book “The Ubiquitous Presidency,” political communication experts Joshua Scacco and Kevin Coe trace how presidents have used the changing media landscape over the past few decades. Clinton, for instance, appeared on various entertainment shows. Obama harnessed the power of digital media. And Trump, before being banned, used Twitter prolifically to talk directly to the American people. But so far, Biden has been pretty conventional in how he communicates, holding traditional televised addresses and touring the country but not really doing anything new.
Ideologically, Biden has always been at the center of his party, too, which makes it harder for him to operate symbolically — he was already the consensus candidate. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he engaged with both the diversity and identity in the Democratic coalition by choosing as his running mate Kamala Harris, the first person of Indian descent and the first Black woman on a major-party presidential ticket, and by working with former 2020 contender Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on climate change and other issue priorities. But it’s unclear how representative these issues are of Biden versus him working to keep the Democratic Party’s coalition in line.
For example, Biden’s COVID-19 stimulus package broke ground by offering expanded tax credits and direct payments, embracing the idea of an active, big government — something Democrats have skirted around since the Reagan years. But it’s unclear so far how many other liberal priorities will make it through the legislative process. This is especially true of Biden’s efforts to tackle structural racism and ensure rights for transgender Americans. He has spoken about these issues more directly than his predecessors, but whether he’ll have the political capital to make real, lasting changes on these fronts remains an open question.
One reason Biden’s presidency seems like such a departure could be the timing. He is serving in an era when the two main political parties have pretty clearly split on many issues and the presidency itself is polarizing. In other words, Biden might not need to do much symbolic leadership for Democrats to know where the party stands. It may be that just as growing polarization created the expectation that the president would serve in this symbolic and cultural role, it has now grown to the point where the president’s symbolic leadership is unnecessary.
Another reason could be that Biden is filling another need in the electorate — the demand to return to a quieter, more “normal” politics that many still associate with the mid-20th century.
The age of social media, cable news and nationalized congressional politics has also allowed a variety of other actors to lead the party symbolically and advance its agenda on cultural and economic issues. These include national progressive icons in Congress like Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as well as media figures and activists. Maybe these kinds of figures will serve as the party’s cultural face while presidents can do more of the mundane work of governance.
It’s perhaps more difficult to imagine this happening for Republicans given the continued influence of Trump and the prominence of cultural appeals for the party brand, but the conservative movement also has no shortage of media figures and camera-seeking members of Congress eager to step into that role.
It’s possible, then, that Biden is a different kind of president and the end of the symbolic presidency is nigh. Then again, maybe Biden is just a brief throwback, before another culturally savvy media darling seeks the presidency.