A hundred years ago, when a friend of mine was public relations director of a big New York City bank, his superior officers used to pray for “divided government” in which neither Democrats nor Republicans controlled all levers of the federal bureaucracy.
The bankers believed that as long as Washington politicians focused on fighting each other, they couldn’t do much to muck up the ability of people to make a living. In other words, the governmental goal of bankers, business leaders and others concerned about the financial well-being of income earners far and wide, was then—and it is still today—“gridlock.”
And in early January, if the good citizens of Georgia see fit to elect at least one Republican to the Senate, gridlock will be back in Washington. And with it, a return to the days of “Do Nothing” government will be assured. Hallelujah!
The bet here is that President-elect Joe Biden, a nice man with plentiful experience, will direct an administration that, like its leader, will be weak, meek, long on inspiring rhetoric and short on meaningful action.
And a lackluster Biden government will mean good news to at least one group of workers in particular—besides the legion of out-of-work Democrat political retainers—public relations professionals. Under Biden, the traditional practice of PR will once again flourish, after being mortally threatened by dastardly Donald and his reckless rule-breaking reign.
From “doer” to “dozer”
Whether you despised or simply detested Donald Trump, you have to acknowledge that the soon-to-be erstwhile Commander-in-Chief got things done for ordinary people. Among Trump’s achievements:
- Resurrecting a listless economy.
- Supporting American business without reservation.
- Delivering ultimatums that forced European nations to start paying their fair share for their own defense.
- Breaking the decades-old logjam on Middle East peace by circumventing obstructionist Palestinian leaders.
- Offing treacherous Iran’s top general.
- Passing a long-promised prison reform bill.
- Presiding over the creation of three vaccines in less than a year to defeat a deadly virus.
Like it or not, President Trump, regardless of his personal odiousness, was a “doer,” the diametric opposite of the successor he appropriately dubbed “Sleepy Joe.”
Biden, unlike Trump, is a “legitimate” 78-year-old: slow-moving, slow-speaking, slow-acting. Like his mentor, Barack Obama, Biden promises to be excruciatingly “deliberative” in every decision he confronts, relying on scores of aides, experts and experienced sources of “Washington wisdom” before taking action.
On the one hand, we can be certain—thankfully!—that the days of disruptive, potentially-disastrous management by daily tweet are behind us. On the other, we can be equally certain, in light of the people that Biden has and will appoint to high office, that relatively little to help ordinary Americans will be accomplished by the new crowd in town.
Biden’s roster of appointees—people like Anthony Blinken, Ron Klain, Jared Bernstein, et al.— are safe, competent, career politicians and Clinton/Obama leftovers, who will neither rock the boat nor get much done. (Think John Kerry, for goddsakes!) Others in the wings, ready for their imminent Biden anointment—people like Corey Booker, Sally Yates and Susan Rice—have spent a lifetime as team players, moving up the ranks, speaking and writing heroically and accomplishing little. The Biden Administration will be marked by such mediocrities. (Maybe with the exception of the gifted Janet Yellen).
In terms of mediocrity, just consider the first journalists the President-elect sought out to preview his first 100 days. For broadcast, he chose CNN’s lugubrious Jake Tapper, the perpetually-downcast Trump-hating anchor who doesn’t even rank among his own network’s top five broadcasters. For print, Biden chose columnist Tom Friedman, who, his New York Times always reminds us, “won the Pulitzer Prize”—yes, 18 years ago!—and in the subsequent two decades has become whiny, bombastic and largely irrelevant. Friedman’s blockbuster, three-column Biden exclusive, for example, consisted mainly of the “revelations” that he’d try to lift Trump Iran sanctions and get back into the nuclear deal if possible and he’d work more with allies on China but wouldn’t immediately drop the Trump China tariffs. Wow! Cue the Pulitzer committee!
The point is that it’s likely the Biden Administration, like the Obama Administration, will be long on rhetoric and short on results. In eight years in office, Obama recorded one signature legislative triumph: healthcare. Biden, similarly, will probably chalk up infrastructure reform as his crowing victory. But not a whole lot more.
The winner: public relations
The prospect of the incoming administration turning out to be as somnambulant as its standard-bearer does, however, bode well for one business: the practice of public relations.
For the great unwashed who consider the public relations business as little more than “style over substance,” the Biden Administration with its promised series of “firsts,” like the “single most diverse Cabinet ever,” will be historic.
For more sophisticated communications scholars, the new administration will adhere to a rigorous regimen of traditional public relations practice, where policies are weighed in terms of public appeal, “worst cases” considered and talking points and key messages vetted thoroughly before being drafted into cohesive arguments by communications professionals.
To ensure this process, Biden has appointed a capable communications team, led by the experienced Kate Bedingfield and Jen Psaki, to counsel him. Biden’s upgrading of White House PR professionalism will be a major change from his predecessor’s predilection for communications threat, bluster and prevarication (i.e. lying).
And the return to a more “normal” PR also underscores that from a character or role-model standpoint, Joe Biden, like Obama, will clearly be a quantum improvement over Trump.
Indeed, there’s little question that we can all be proud of President-to-be. Just don’t expect him to accomplish much.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He’s author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.