A Fly on the Wall: Joe and the Historians

(On March 2, President Biden hosted a private meeting with eight historians and biographers at the White House to discuss the historical context of his presidency. The meeting caught many by surprise — not just because of the attendees, but also its premise. JEP was slipped a copy of an unofficial transcript, from which highlights follow. Besides the President, attendees included Doris Kearns Goodwin (DKG), Jon Meacham (JM), Michael Beschloss (MB), Michael Eric Dyson (MED), Joanne Freeman (JF), Eddie Glaude Jr. (EGJ), Annette Gordon-Reed (AGR) and Walter Isaacson (WI).

JM: Welcome, friends. I think it was a pleasant surprise for all of us when we were invited us to this roundtable. As you all know, I’m close to the President. I’ve helped him with some of his major speeches and am proud to call him a friend. The premise of the meeting is simple: How should the President position his term in a historical context? There are two rules for the meeting. No grandstanding — Eddie, this is not Morning Joe — and keep your masks on. Mr. President?

President Biden: Thanks Jon, and thank you all for coming. We’re just 51 days into this presidency, but as they say, history moves at the speed of Twitter now, so I wanted to check in with you all. By the way, you all look great! Doris, you look younger every time I see you! Walter, have you been working out? Jon, love ya man. I’d give you a hug, but Covid, you know. Yeah, so I just wanted to get your take after 51 days, how am I doing, what should I be doing and who should be my role model? My first choice was Lincoln, but my predecessor already grabbed that one. Speaking of my predecessor, he held a similar meeting of outside advisors around the same in his term — Kid Rock, Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin — what the hell were they talking about, man . . .

President Trump hosting a meeting of informal advisors early in his term.

WI: Mr. President, if I could just quickly jump in. You talk a lot about your predecessor. I’d stop doing that if I were you. It makes you look as if everything you do is just a reaction to him and his policies, when you should be seen as leaning forward.

President Biden: Thanks Walter, yeah, I can see that. Well, I do remember those long lunch meetings with Barack when he would go on and on about his place in history. He was obsessed with it! But look, I’m just a kid from Delaware, so you all explain it to me. A couple of things are important. I want everybody to like me and I want to be seen as a unifier.

JF: On that point, Mr. President, I’m not sure if comity and unity should be primary objectives. We’ve rarely reached those ideals in this country. In fact, from the founding of our country politics have been defined by regional distrust, personal animosity, suspicion, implication and denouncement.

MB: I second that, Mr. President. We haven’t changed much since the founding. If you go back to the Jay Treaty of 1794, which brokered a rapprochement with the British so we could have more robust trade, we were already a bitterly divided country. The Jeffersonians railed at the Hamiltonians with this slogan: “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone that won’t damn John Jay! Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his window and sit up all night damning John Jay!” You can’t come up with this a better template for today’s Twitter wars.

President Biden: Wow, you guys really are a buzz kill, I have to say. C’mon man! Lighten up!

DKG: Mr. President, let me offer a choice. In my mind, you could go big, like FDR did with the New Deal, or you could go big, like LBJ did with the Great Society. These are presidents that transformed the country and we are still living with the legacies they created — Social Security, the FDIC and large-scale public works in the case of FDR, and civil rights and public assistance in LBJ’s case.

President Biden: So you’re saying go big? I was hoping you’d say that. I always though Barack pulled too many punches. I’m just a kid from Delaware. We never pulled punches. You can bet your bottom dollar if I got my predecessor behind the high school gym, I wouldn’t pull any punches . . .

WI: Mr. President, check the predecessor-bashing.

President Biden: Right, sorry Walter. Man, do I miss that guy.

JM: Mr. President, there’s a pragmatic side to this. You’ve got the left wing of your party demanding that you basically use the government to do a hostile takeover of American society. We know you’re considering an infrastructure bill of about $2 trillion, but they’re talking in the range of $15 trillion. So you’ve got to think in terms of doing a head fake with the left wing — signal that you want to transform the country but at the end of the day still keep us in the swim lane of the capitalist system.

President Biden: Whoa, Jon, that’s a mouthful!

EGJ: I agree. Jon, you have to break that down into something I can use on Morning Joe — how about “cautious boldness?”

JM: Whatever, Eddie. You know what I mean. The President can go big, but he’s got to do it walking down the middle of the road, like Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”

WI: Mr. President, there’s another option we haven’t talked about: incrementalism. Let’s be frank. The thing that swung the election in your favor — besides Jim Clyburn pulling your ass out of the fire in South Carolina during the primaries — is all the independents and Republicans that were voting against your predecessor. Many of them are tired of presidential overreach, whether through legislation, executive orders or Twitter. There’s nothing wrong with taking an incremental approach — getting things done in small steps that are easy to manage and can get bipartisan support.

MED: Walter, we all know incrementalism rests on the beagle fallacy. A beagle has a very good sense of smell but limited eyesight, and thus could miss prey that appears in front of him, but downwind. By only focusing on incremental changes to policies and policy applications, the White House would be in danger of missing the broader directions in fulfilling its mandate.

President Biden: Hey, you know who was a big fan of incrementalism? John Boehner. But the Tea Party and Fox News ate him up. Where’s John now? Living a life of golf, wine and weed. Did you read his new book? Man did he rip Ted Cruz a new one. Literally!

JM: Mr. President, I’m sorry, but Niall Ferguson has been calling nonstop and insists on being heard. Can I put him on the speaker?

President Biden: Wait, he’s the conservative guy, right? I though we scratched him off the list. OK, give him 30 seconds.

NF: Mr. President, if you want to go big and be remembered by history, I have two words for you — Ronald Reagan . . .

JM: Oh shoot, we lost the connection . . . Maybe we’ll get him back in a minute.

President Biden: OK, so let me see if I have this right. Go big, but don’t make it seem like I’m going too big, except to AOC. We want her to think this is a revolution. So I’m thinking a lot of FDR, a little LBJ and a touch of Bill Clinton — jeez, that guy could sell anything to the American public! And focus on the message of meeting the moment of our American crisis.

WI: Mr. President, if I could once again offer an alternative point of view. If we’re honest, do we really have an American crisis? Think about it. Before the pandemic we had an economy that was firing on all cylinders. We had record low unemployment, especially among African Americans and Latinos; household net worth was increasing significantly, especially among lower-income Americans; illegal immigration seemed to be getting under control; manufacturing and capital was returning to the country; and the stock market was soaring. Socially, this country was a shit show, pardon my language, but we all know the cause of that. Our initial response to the coronavirus was botched, but we recovered quickly and the development of three vaccines will go down in history as one of the biggest feats of world-scale innovation ever. Now, it looks like the pandemic is receding and we have an economy that is chomping at the bit to roar back even bigger and better. So do we really have a crisis?

(At this point, there is pandemonium in the room. Voices are raised and people are talking over one another. Finally, Annette Gordon-Read is heard.)

AGR: Thanks for that Walter, but what we’re talking about is history — a once-in-a-generation opportunity to meet the moment and transform America into a more just and prosperous society, built on a foundation of racial equity and clean energy. Don’t get in the way. This is not a time for common sense and practical solutions. The media are watching. Do you want to get canceled? I sure don’t! We’ve got to step up!

President Biden: This is fascinating! I could go on for two more hours, but I’d like to grab a quick nap. I’ll have Kamala take my seat in the meantime. Man, does she have some wild ideas! See you all again soon.

(Transcript ends).

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