Opinion: Trump has CPAC, but Biden has kryptonite

Julian Zelizer

Julian Zelizer

What should President Biden do? Trump will inevitably launch a few rhetorical grenades at the new administration, so does Biden need to respond? Will saying nothing simply give his defeated predecessor a platform to disseminate falsehoods, disinformation and smears without any sort of retribution? Will this be the beginning of another birther-style campaign, where Trump and his allies ramp up their McCarthy-style attacks while Democrats wrongly assume that they will simply go away?
The best bet is for Biden to ignore him.
We are approaching the anniversary of the moment when our nation was forced to shut down because of Covid-19 and we saw the beginning of a devastating death toll that has outpaced the carnage of all our nation’s military conflicts. Had the former president been focused on governance rather than toxic Twitter tirades, we would certainly be in a much better place today. If Biden does anything to provide Trump — who no longer has access to his social media bullhorn — with additional attention, it would be a massive political mistake.
Biden has been remarkably disciplined since taking office. He has kept his focus, and as a result, the focus of the nation, on actual policy responses to help slowly move us back to normal. Since January 20, his public comments have centered on vaccine production and the vaccine rollout, the $1.9 trillion stimulus and relief package, and the confirmation of cabinet secretaries who have needed expertise and governing experience. He has even managed to find time to discuss immigration reform. Biden campaigned on the promise of emphasizing governance after four years where that concern disappeared from the Oval Office and thus far, he has followed through.
Every president has significant power to shape the national agenda via their public proclamations. Unlike anyone else in our political arena, the news media covers the President’s words with laser-like focus. If a president starts talking about unemployment, for instance, news coverage — and the private conversations of those who follow politics — will turn to that subject. In contrast, if a president talks about made-up threats from dangerous caravans of people trying to enter into our border, that will receive attention as well. We tend to take our lead from our presidents.
During the past four years, nobody could figure out how to stop Trump from dominating national attention. Given that he had few guardrails when it came to his speech, he would frequently, literally do and say anything if it was sensational enough to draw interest as well as outrage. The nation was constantly bombarded by his latest whims.
Now there is a new boss in town and he has control of the presidential platform. This means that Biden can use this power in strategic fashion to keep coverage on the issues that matters. The United States is still very much in the middle of a major crisis. Our economy is struggling, Americans are still dying from Covid-19 and our civic and educational institutions are barely standing. Biden needs to keep speaking about taking on these challenges with the ferocity of a military campaign. He should be encouraged by the strong popular support that the stimulus and relief package has received, despite Republican legislators lining up to oppose it. One poll found that 83% of Americans support the package, including 66% of self-described conservatives.
The stakes are too high for the nation to get sucked back into Trumpian chaos, whether delivered at CPAC or anywhere else. Our inability to do so has been a big factor behind our being in the current public health quagmire. Biden has already faced many challenges as president in his first months as commander in chief. Now comes a new one, which will revolve around the exercise of restraint. During last year’s presidential debates and campaign, where Trump repeatedly tried to provoke him, Biden showed that he can succeed at this challenge.
Starting this weekend, the President can deliver the kind of political blow that hurts Trump more than anything else — he can ignore him. Indifference is Trump’s kryptonite. If Biden can pull it off again, this will leave him on the strongest political ground.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.