On a sweltering day last month, President Biden traveled to Somerset, Mass. Appearing on a bulldozed patch of land where a coal-fired power plant recently stood, and where a substation for an offshore wind farm eventually will, Biden delivered what the White House press office billed as remarks on “actions to tackle the climate crisis.” The previous week, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia seemingly torpedoed Biden’s ambitious climate package (though Manchin would soon resurrect it). In the meantime, much of the country was suffering from extreme weather: wildfires, floods, record heat. Now Biden, sporting Ray-Bans and forgoing a tie in the blistering heat, looked out at the crowd and the cameras. “Let me be clear,” he declared. “Climate change is an emergency.”
Does any of this sound familiar? Can you picture it? Probably not: None of the three major cable news channels carried the speech live. All three network news shows led with stories about record-high temperatures — “the suffocating heat gripping more than 100 million Americans,” as NBC’s Lester Holt described it, only to be one-upped by ABC’s David Muir, who spoke of “heat warnings and advisories for 29 states now, more than 140 million Americans.” But they didn’t cover Biden’s speech until well into their newscasts, and then only for a minute or so; if you had stepped away to adjust your air-conditioner, you might have missed it.
The leader of the free world does not have much of a visual presence in it.
If you saw any of the president’s speech online, it was most likely the brief segment in which he recalled the oil refineries near his childhood home and said they were “why I and so many damn other people I grew up with have cancer.” Critics, seizing on what they saw as a gaffe, circulated that clip all over social media: “Did Joe Biden just announce he has cancer?” an official Republican National Committee account posted on Twitter. Biden’s defenders said he was referring to the nonmelanoma skin cancers he has had removed in the past. Bill Clinton once prompted a debate about “the meaning of the word ‘is’”; Biden’s speech started one about the semantics of “have.”
The lack of substantive coverage of the climate speech itself illustrates an unusual feature of Biden’s presidency: The leader of the free world does not have much of a visual presence in it.
No president, of course, could have quite the visual presence of Biden’s predecessor. Donald Trump filled our screens. The cable channels went live for his speeches and cabinet meetings and grip-and-grins with foreign dignitaries — even his walks from the White House to a helicopter — in the entirely justified hope that he would do something newsworthy.
Try to pick the indelible image of Trump’s presidency. It’s impossible: There are too many. The white-knuckled squeeze of Emanuel Macron’s hand during an uncomfortably long shake. Standing on the South Lawn reading from a Sharpie-festooned legal pad, denying any “quid pro quo” with Ukraine. Holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church during the protests over George Floyd’s murder. These images compete with dozens, maybe hundreds, more.
Now try to select an image from — much less the indelible image of — Biden’s presidency. You can’t, because there aren’t any.
This is partly by design. Biden’s 2020 campaign was founded, in large part, on the promise of a return to normalcy, and it is not normal for Americans to be thinking about their president as relentlessly as they did during the Trump years. “People got tired of listening to and seeing the president,” Martha Joynt Kumar, a scholar of presidential media strategy, told me. “They were exhausted by the end of the Trump administration.”
Biden has provided a respite. According to Kumar’s tabulations, he has held about half as many as news conferences and given around a third as many interviews as Trump had at this point in his presidency. It’s not just submitting to fewer questions from the press; he’s in front of cameras less frequently than Trump as well, even spending days with nothing at all on his public schedule. To Republicans, this is proof of Biden’s senescence; to the press, his lack of transparency. But when CNN asked the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, what Biden was doing during two days out of view last month, she replied that he had been “very busy dealing with the issues of the American people, and meeting with his staff and senior staff the last two days.”
That could well be true. The problem, for Biden, is that his predecessor redefined what’s expected of the president. There has long been a performative component to the role, but Trump made public performance the entire job. The press covered his every appearance not just because his behavior resulted in gaffes but because it set policy. A defining feature of the Trump years was the president publicly fulminating about something, and then administration officials scrambling to cobble together policy proposals that matched his fulminations. To pick one of many instances, in 2018 Trump announced, while venting to reporters about immigration, that he was enlisting the U.S. military to guard the border with Mexico. The White House subsequently clarified that Trump meant he was mobilizing the National Guard, not active-duty military, but when Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was produced to explain the plan to reporters, she had no details to offer: “We’ll let you know as soon as we can,” she said. “I’m going to get on phone calls right now.”
Biden, somewhat anachronistically, still insists on putting the horse before the cart. After Manchin seemed to sink the administration’s climate agenda last month, Democrats called on the president to formally declare a climate emergency, which would theoretically allow him to circumvent Congress in taking action. But he demurred. Speaking to reporters after the Massachusetts speech — in which he pointedly did not declare a climate emergency — he explained, “I’m running the traps on the totality of the authority I have.”
This should be an admirable trait. But Biden’s reticence often registers as an absence. When Democrats criticized him for not being forceful enough in his response to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, it wasn’t necessarily because they expected him to do anything; as a matter of law, there was little he could do. But they did want the face of their party to assume a mantle of leadership, demonstrate resolve and help channel their energies.
Considering Biden’s limitations — his age, his focus on policy — you might expect to see his young vice president out making the case for the administration. But Kamala Harris has her own problems. In the pair’s absence, Democrats are looking elsewhere. Some get excited whenever Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s secretary of transportation, goes on Fox News to dismantle a few loaded questions, circulating YouTube clips with titles like “Pete Buttigieg HUMILIATES Fox News Host with EPIC Response on Live TV.” Others hail Gov. Gavin Newsom of California as “an effective and fierce fighter,” in the words of the liberal pundit Dean Obeidallah, for running ads in Florida and Texas trolling those states’ Republican governors. A Michigan state senator named Mallory McMorrow raised more than $1 million from donors in 50 states after her speech on the G.O.P.’s treatment of the L.G.B.T.Q. community went viral. On their screens and in their imaginations, Democrats are experiencing a great and public void. At some point, someone is going to have to fill it for them.
Source photographs: Jim Watson/Getty Images; Andrew Merry/Getty Images; Joseph Prezioso/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images; Frans Lemmens/Getty Images
Jason Zengerle is a contributing writer for the magazine. He is working on a book about Tucker Carlson and conservative media.