Barack Obama returned to the White House this week, and his presence was a straight up blast from the past. The 2010s might not be our most culturally defined decade, but surely the Age of Barry still has a few touchstones worth recalling. That was back when it was cool to say “there’s an app for that,” all the way back when the Speaker of the House was…actually it was still Nancy Pelosi.
And it was back when everyone, and I do mean everyone, could not shut up about Obamacare. Sure enough, Obama was back in Washington to once again revel in the passage of his signature health law, even if it had just undergone yet another round of tweaks to make it work this time for real. Yet what ended up making headlines wasn’t the policy but an awkward joke that Obama cracked at the beginning of his speech.
“Vice President Biden…” Obama said, grinning a bit too eagerly at his former veep.
For once, Kamala Harris’s awkward laughter seemed entirely appropriate.
Crashing through the skylight came the Republican National Committee, which seized on the quip, along with a video of Obama holding court with audience members while Biden stood alone, to attack the president as isolated. Yet in fairness, it’s not like our Joe isn’t in demand. At a NATO summit last week, European leaders were practically tripping over each other to talk to the man. Emmanuel Macron at one point sauntered past Boris Johnson with Biden at his side like he was off to make out with the prom queen.
And while Obama quickly embraced Biden after the remark, made sure to say, “my president,” Biden was no doubt gnashing into his Polident. It’s worth remembering that the dynamic between Obama and Biden is similar to the one that once existed between Bill Clinton and Al Gore: their public personas are the opposite of their private ones. Just as Clinton was warm in public and more terse and Gore-like in private, so too was Obama often impatient toward those around him. He preferred policy details to people, which reportedly created friction with his more affable veep. These are two very different men and they didn’t always get on well.
So…Vice President Biden? It could have been more than just a harmless joke, yeah.
Our politics has changed vertiginously since Obama left office. The Republican Party has hung up its tricornered hats in favor of MAGA caps. The online right now engages in debates that would have been unthinkable a decade ago: whether classical liberalism is dead; whether even to break up the United States. On the rise is a parents’ rights movement that’s furious about race-and-gender radicalism in public schools and determined to take back control.
The left has changed, too, drastically and for the worse, leaning in to a psychotic post-Obergefell identity politics and snarling even louder in the face of even the faintest dissent. Yet what’s perhaps most striking amid all this flux is just how little the Biden administration has changed. This is what made Obama’s veep burn all the more uncomfortable: Biden’s agenda is essentially Obama’s agenda. Obama passed a massive pro-green stimulus bill; Biden tried to do the same. Obama was an interest group liberal who sought to reward the constituencies that got him elected; Biden is too. Obama had no idea what to make of the fracking revolution; Biden has been schizophrenic on no issue so much as fossil fuels.
On foreign policy, the two men admittedly have their differences. Obama surged more forces into Afghanistan while Biden brought them home — and no one will ever forget Obama’s blithe dismissal of the threat posed by Vladimir Putin. But then current relations with Russia are being managed by a veritable Obama class reunion, Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan and Jen Psaki. Biden’s administration, as with Obama’s, is staffed by a certain breed of chirpy, wonkish, techno-optimistic, big-spending liberal, raised on The West Wing and committed to big-government do-gooding, which is to say them filling their days on the taxpayer’s tab.
The difference is that, whereas with team Obama this felt fresh and idealistic, with Biden it feels passé and tired. Hence why Obama’s speech was such a nostalgia trip back to the 2010s. You half expected to look over and see Biden planking. And that’s just it: Obama will ultimately be remembered not for his policies — Obamacare is still a mess of paperwork and sky-high deductibles; the Great Recession was ugly and lasting — but for his style, a vague and fuzzy and pre-Trump melange of coolness and optimism. His administration was a new Camelot, and like the last one, it was nowhere near as great as it seems now.
Biden has none of this sheen, yet he’s saddled with the same agenda. He might no longer be veep, but he does look a lot like Obama’s heir. There is a reason we Millennials are starting to feel a bit long in the tooth.