Joe Biden's secret sauce

Plus: Prince Harry's new jobs, and what I've been reading.

President Biden on St Patrick’s Day. Do we think he has enough clover?
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP


Humans have a pronounced tendency to price in good news as soon as it happens, to the extent that we no longer count it as such. It’s odd, for instance, that we are not going around with a permanent grin on our faces as we recall that Donald Trump is no longer president, no longer making his daily violent raids on our attention. American politics has ceased to dominate the global headlines, and we should all be delighted by that.

This is also because the new incumbent is determined not to create any drama. Joe Biden’s calculation is that voters of whatever party are sick of in-your-face presidencies and want someone to just boringly get on with the job. He makes relatively few public appearances, says little of interest, and barely tweets. So far, it’s working: his approval rating is about ten points higher than his predecessor’s ever was. Whatever Biden’s secret sauce is, it does not taste of much. In fact, he may be the president that voters feel least strongly about since - since when? Obama and Bush, not to mention he-who-no-longer-tweets, evoked more love and more hate.

We are used to the idea that politicians should inspire passion and lead popular movements, but Biden is currently reaping the benefits of blandness. He has just passed a massive stimulus bill, heavily weighted towards the least well off; it’s estimated to cut child poverty by half (when it comes to government spending programs, many’s the slip, but still). Now, I am sceptical this represents some kind of seismic shift in the political landscape - can we just wait and see on that? - but this legislation is certainly a BFD. It is as progressive as any that Presidents Sanders or Warren would have passed if either, in the absence of Biden, had got to the White House or been able to pass a bill once there, both of which I count unlikely.

The advantage of not inspiring passionate support is that you don’t encounter fierce resistance. When RealClearPolitics polled opinions on the COVID stimulus bill, they found widespread approval of it, including 41% of Republicans. RCP didn’t only ask if voters supported the “American Rescue Plan”; they also polled the details of the plan - on how the money was being spent. You might have predicted that, faced with gory details of Democrat spending, conservatives would recoil from the bill. But actually, support for the bill increased among Republicans when they knew more about it: after details of the legislation were explained, that 41% figure increased to 54%.

That’s a pretty astonishing figure. A majority of Republicans are supporting a Democrat president’s signature bill - one which includes the kind of vast, debt-enabled domestic spending to which Republicans are in theory meant to be ideologically opposed. Meanwhile, Biden’s next legislative priority is a huge infrastructure bill with climate change at the heart of it. Union leaders are calling Joe Biden the most union-friendly president in living memory. He’s making progress on a minimum wage hike.

In short, we have further evidence that if you want left-wing policies, you need to run centrist candidates. Come to that, if you want right-wing policies, run centrist candidates. As I’ve noted previously, Donald Trump won in 2016 because he was perceived as moderate, certainly more so than Hillary Clinton. Only in office, under the sway of his own party, who wanted him to repeal Obamacare, did he become perceived as extreme - perhaps there’s a warning for Biden here.

Clearly, some of Biden’s early headway is to do with the extraordinary circumstance of the pandemic. But it is at least something do with Biden, who, by virtue of being who he is, gives permission to Republicans to support or accept policies they see as broadly sensible even when they come from the other party. Perhaps “centrism” is misleading; this is more about temperament and personality than ideology. Most voters don’t have a clear political philosophy, and Joe Biden appears to have that in common with them - which means that even those who didn’t vote for him can give him the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t strive to represent a break from the norm; he’d rather be ‘like you’. Whatever he does seems unremarkable because he makes no claim to be remarkable. Leading a popular movement is one thing, but when you enact sweepingly radical policies and voters merely shrug - that’s success.


Please remember to spread the word about The Ruffian! If you enjoy this newsletter, tell someone. It’s free to read but not free to produce. Use this link. Oh and please buy my book on why we need more disagreement and how to do it well:

How to buy CONFLICTED - links to your favourite booksellers (UK and US).
Malcolm Gladwell says it’s “Beautifully argued. Desperately needed.”


  • Some elegant charts on how the music business has changed over the last thirty years, courtesy of Benedict Evans. Cassettes were huge! RIP Lou Ottens.

  • Contrary to reports suicide rates have not increased during the pandemic. The media has a morbid and irresponsible tendency to talk up suicide rates generally - best to examine every claim about made on this subject with scepticism.

  • A great question from Hannah Ritchie, a sustainability expert: why do we care about biodiversity? Part of the reason I like her question is that she’s genuinely unsure of her answer and is interrogating her own intuition.

  • I enjoyed this conversation about CONFLICTED with my old pod partner Matthew Taylor.

  • Most US commentators on the Royal Family seem to have learnt all they know about British history at the University of Netflix but here is an exception - whether you agree with his argument or not, the author at least understands the monarchy’s role in our constitution, and he is able to analyse the H&M affair through the lens of institutions, not just individuals and families - on which, here’s a complementary thread.

  • Only one part of society is open, and it’s the one where everyone is in buildings the state directly controls & the state has literally all the details of every person in the system already. And R still went above 1.” I have been and remain an optimist about the pandemic, at least in Britain, but I’m going to prove my ability to update by bringing you slightly bad news here. Nick is someone whose judgement on these matters I trust.

  • Been enjoying Bettye Lavette’s take on Most of the Time by Bob Dylan. It’s from an album of Dylan covers that contains a few gems.

Prince Harry is now “Chief Impact Officer” of a mental health startup and “Commissioner on Information Disorder” for the Aspen Foundation. He has no qualifications or special talents for either role, but that’s OK because neither require him to do anything except be ‘Prince Harry’. As Sam Leith entertainingly argues here, Harry is now just a different type of figurehead, having exchanged one emotionally arid micro-culture for another. In fact I’d say that the culture of billionaire tech philanthropy is way more gestural and meaningless than that of the institution he has left behind (contrast, for example, the rambling jargon-heavy statements Sam quotes with this masterpiece of economy). The arcane protocols that Harry and Meghan found so baffling are at least rooted in historical traditions - in rituals that started out as artificial and acquired meaning over centuries. The individuals who embody those traditions, and that history, inherit a special power - not economic or political power anymore, but the power to move and delight. When a prince or a princess walks into somebody’s school or a hospital, it means a huge amount to the children, patients, staff. Just by representing the Royal Family, Prince Harry gave people happiness and hope. I’d be surprised if his new job enables him to have that kind of impact.

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.” Kurt Vonnegut (via Austin Kleon).

I recently finished Absolutely On Music, in which the novelist Haruki Murakami shoots the breeze with the great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. I loved it. It’s deeply learned and very accessible at the same time, a rare combination, especially when it comes to books about classical music. My favourite parts are the minutely detailed discussions of different recordings of the same piece. Although the book came out before the age of streaming, it’s perfectly designed for anyone with Spotify or similar. It has made me listen more and better. Earlier I read The Blue Room by Georges Simenon, my first non-Maigret Simenon. Wow, what a writer. Just at a technical level it’s a masterclass. His storytelling - his interweaving of different perspectives and temporalities, his ability to conjure up a place, a room - is second to none.

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Hey wait I don’t know if I already said this but you really should order CONFLICTED.