I think it was around 1985.
I was a young reporter assigned to cover one of my first news conferences called by the governor of Connecticut. Bill O’Neill had served in the legislature, then as lieutenant governor. He became governor when his predecessor died in office. He would go on to win two terms on his own and become the state’s longest serving governor. A record that still stands. He was a Democrat. He was often underestimated, but he knew some things.
On that day, O’Neill called the press to his office to announce a plan he had to dramatically increase education spending in the state by hundreds of millions of dollars. After he told us what he was planning there was the usual round of questions and as the natural flow of q and a was winding down one reporter asked O’Neill about the expected opposition.
“Governor, we haven’t had a chance to talk to any Republicans about this plan yet, but it is fair to say they are probably going to say it’s too much money and we can’t afford it. What do you say to that criticism?”
Straining against his own glee, with a straight face, O’Neill looked at the reporter and answered, “Well, I’m for better schools, students and teachers. If the Republicans are against those things they should make their best argument.” O’Neill allowed himself only the slightest of almost imperceptible smiles just before the room broke out into laughter.
This was my first real lesson in politics and how to take a position on an issue. Sometimes leadership is not about leading the parade, it is about knowing where the parade is and getting in front of it while your opponents march in the wrong direction.
As I watched President Biden deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress last month I thought about the lesson I learned from Governor O’Neill. And as I watched Republicans sit on their hands, refusing to applaud or falling asleep as the president offered one popular idea after another, I could not help but think they are marching in wrong direction.
I know, I know. Biden is proposing to spend billions of dollars on top of the trillions he has already spent. We can’t afford it. What about the deficit? What about the national debt? In any other time these would be legitimate issues worth fighting for, but we are still in an emergency situation created by the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. It is clear most Americans are ready to accept the idea that now is not the time for caution. Now is the time for a bailout and a huge investment in the future to make sure we are prepared to survive the next catastrophe. For now, most of the country is for government intervention.
Republicans can claim partial victory if they are smart. Biden knows he must compromise to get his plans through Congress and he knows the most likely way to secure that compromise is by lowering the cost of his proposed programs. If Republicans want to be able to claim they kept spending lower than it would have been, if they had not been there, that is a compromise Biden is willing to make. He is smart enough and experienced enough to have factored that cost in to what he is asking for.
Four months into his term, President Biden is showing that being a career politician is not always bad and sometimes it’s just what the country needs. After four years of government by amateurs, the Biden administration looks like the well-oiled machine President Trump always claimed, but never delivered. Biden is in control of himself and his team. He is in control of his agenda and his priorities. He can take the criticism and stay focused on the goal. He understands the concept of playing down and then exceeding expectations. He has been sitting on the bench, waiting to play this position for five decades, and now the voters have put him in the game, and though he has often been underestimated, he is showing the value of life experience in the toughest job there is.
A small example is how he managed expectations on delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. He was mocked last December when he predicted 100 million people would be vaccinated in his first 100 days in office. After four years of Trump, it sounded like a classic marketing over-reach. When by the 100 day mark Biden was able to announce over 200 million vaccinations he left no doubt he had always intended to easily exceed his own publicly set expectations from the start. This is how a president, or any elected official, sets himself up for victory. Manage expectations. It was an easy win. He was able to quietly except the criticism, because he knew in less than four months he would prove himself right.
In flatly opposing President Biden’s embrace of big government, Republicans risk losing the leverage they have over the course of the debate. Public opinion polls consistently show strong approval ratings for Biden’s handling of the pandemic and the economy. They also show strong support for most of his policy proposals, despite the price tag. The only area where Biden is under-performing is his handling of the immigration issue. But he is realistic on immigration and believes winning on public health, the economy and jobs will, in the end, be more important. He is probably right. In short, if the pandemic is brought under control, people are working again, and the economy is performing well because of government intervention, voters will give President Biden the credit. They will not reward Republicans at the polls for opposing the president or for reducing the size of his spending plans. Such minor victories will be lost in the larger story of the overall recovery.
More than ten years after I covered that news conference in the governor’s office, I ended up working for another governor as a communications director and later as chief of staff. Governor John Rowland, was a Republican, who worked successfully for two and a half terms with Democratic majorities. He had a philosophy that Governor O’Neill would have appreciated when it came to picking policies and issues to go to battle over. He would consider the policy, take a position and then think about how it might be opposed. If he could sum up the debate with the statement, “that’s a fight I’m willing to have all day,” then he would move forward.
As President Biden delivered his address to Congress on April 28, in words and gestures, he made several overtures to the Republicans in the audience, who for the most part refused to show any positive reaction to what he was putting forward. He invited them to the table and they refused to sit down. He explained to them that Republican voters across the country largely support his policies, but still Republican leaders in Congress refused to get on board.
As a former senator, accustomed to making arguments to a reluctant partisan audience, Biden just kept talking, because his conversation was directed more at the audience outside the room than the audience inside the room. For months, the president and his team, have been making the argument that bi-artisanship is not defined by whether Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy recognize an applause line. Bi-partisanship is defined by what ordinary Americans of both political parties think. And on that score, the president has the advantage.
If Republicans are signaling they are against an end to the pandemic, against economic recovery, against investment in infrastructure and education — simply because those ideas are being put forward by a Democratic president — then Joe Biden is willing to let them make that mistake. It’s a fight he’s willing to have all day.