On the morning of Jan. 20, hours before Joe Biden arrived at the White House as the 46th U.S. president, a clear plexiglass shield was erected at the guard’s desk at the entrance to the West Wing housing the executive offices.
It was a small but noticeable sign that things were changing: COVID-19 protections missing during Donald Trump’s last year in office would be a regular part of White House life in the Biden administration.
From required mask-wearing to a new public information approach, the Democrat’s steady hand-on-the-tiller style marks an abrupt change from the bombast and volatility under the Republican Trump, a businessman and former reality TV star.
“This is what normalcy looks like,” said John Bolton, a former national security adviser to Trump and ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, when asked about the Biden administration. “It’s certainly true that if a president can’t manage the White House, he can’t manage the rest of it.”
A White House governing strategy assailed as chaotic by both political parties is gone, replaced by message discipline and a disinclination toward leaks.
New presidents typically benefit from a honeymoon period. Morning Consult Political Intelligence showed that, during Biden’s first few days in office, 56 percent of voters approved of his job performance. But popularity can be fleeting.
DOGS AND BRIEFINGS ARE BACK
The White House changes are myriad, from the mundane to the profound. Dogs are back on the South Lawn. Regular media briefings, with follow-up questions and data-driven answers, have returned to the briefing room.
Biden himself has made unity and civility overarching messages.
“We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature,” Biden said in his inaugural address. “For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury; no progress, only exhausting outrage; no nation, only a state of chaos.”
Trump dominated the news cycle largely as a one-man show, shifting topics regularly in a frenetic, seesaw fashion. The Biden team has stuck to a specific theme nearly every day, with Biden systematically signing executive orders to roll back one Trump policy after another.
Trump’s Twitter account, a mainstay of his presidency with aggrieved and inflammatory messages on a daily if not hourly basis, was suspended in the aftermath of a Jan. 6 riot by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol.
Biden’s tweets are used to advance his policy objectives and to share the occasional lighthearted comment, such as when he cleared up any confusion about his favorite ice cream flavor: “Can confirm it’s chocolate chip.”
WHITE HOUSE MASKS AND DIVERSITY
Biden’s approach to the coronavirus is one of the sharpest departures from his predecessor. The new president has made fighting the pandemic, which has killed 430,000 people in the United States, his top priority.
Trump played down the pandemic in its early stages and routinely eschewed masks. Most officials did not wear them around him either. The virus infected Trump and multiple members of his White House team.
Biden has mandated mask-wearing in government buildings.
At public events, he and other officials adhere to public health guidelines for social distancing. Many of his early executive order signings have been in the spacious State Dining Room, where there is plenty of room for attendees to spread out.
Biden required appointees to sign stringent ethics pledges that include a ban on accepting gifts from registered lobbyists or lobbying organizations.
He also has showcased diversity. Vice President Kamala Harris – the first woman, Black person and Asian American to hold the role – is on hand for event after event.
Although Biden has his share of white male advisers, other team members, from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first woman and the first Black person to hold the roles, respectively, have projected a tableau of America in a way that Trump’s team did not.
Biden’s call to move past the polarizing Trump years will be tested as his legislative agenda encounters resistance from Republicans on Capitol Hill and from liberal lawmakers who seek bolder reforms.
“In the short term very clearly the temperature has been taken down, and despite what we’ve seen in the Capitol just a few weeks ago, people are calming down,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
“Moving forward, Biden is in a perfect position to cut the deals that Trump always said he could but never did,” he said, but added, “that’s not to say it’s going to be easy.”