Is President Joe Biden’s ego outpacing his ability to govern, given his strong legislative achievements and ongoing popularity? Voters will have to assess his leadership in the 2024 election, considering the complex interplay of personal emotions and pragmatism.
While Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, has urged calm, telling party leaders to stop “bed-wetting,” Democrat old pro James Carville has said his Republican wife has already changed his bedding to rubber sheets.
Is Biden’s evergreen ego — his scrappy Scranton Joe determination — outpacing his ability to win a tough election, much less govern a bitterly divided country until 2029?
Will there be dire consequences because the man who had been yearning to be president since he was 46 resists giving up the job at 81? Should he have stepped aside for someone younger?
Biden’s impressive record
Given Biden’s legislative achievements over just three years, these are difficult questions to answer.
Condemnation of new eruptions of egomania in leaders with limited accomplishments — or malignant damage (does the aggrieved 45th president come to mind?) — makes sense.
But Biden’s situation is more complex, especially since his high levels of self-confidence have undoubtedly contributed to his strong performance on social, economic and foreign policy.
The president has had enough ego to dream big — and enough stamina to achieve legislation pouring trillions of dollars into major initiatives. High points: 2021’s American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law; the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
He even reached out to those who disagreed with him, allowing him to forge deals with obstreperous Republicans and prickly Democrats.
But his self-confidence has also had guardrails. He’s taken flak in stride as an inevitable consequence of democratic leadership. He didn’t let denunciations prevent the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or stop him from taking on a tortuous tightrope walk through the Gaza cataclysm’s horrors.
Ego or hubris?
High-achieving leaders are always at risk of crossing a line that separates self-confidence from over-confidence, ego from hubris. Has Biden crossed this line as he hungers for a second term, leading him to potentially disastrous decisions?
If so, critics — sympathetic or otherwise — should note two important qualifiers.
First, even great leaders are inevitably subject to emotions and appetites that can veer in problematic as well as positive directions. Plato once examined the competing impulses of human nature — reason, spirit and appetite — echoed later in Sigmund Freud’s id and superego theories.
William James, a pioneering analyst of rationality and pragmatism, insisted that sentiment and emotions were also in “the very flour of which our mental bread is kneaded.”
None of them would have been surprised if a 21st-century president resisted cool calculations based on the arithmetic of polling numbers — and age.
Egos in the White House
Biden is far from the first American president whose great achievements could be tarnished with hubris.
George Washington combined sterling leadership qualities with the elitism of a slave-owning aristocrat (including the institution of exclusive presidential levees). Theodore Roosevelt’s “progressive” activism went hand in hand with a desire “to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening,” according to his daughter.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s self-confidence was as crucial to his success as it’s been to Biden. FDR’s 12 years in the White House saw monumental results, especially the New Deal’s transformation of the federal government’s social welfare responsibilities.
The 32nd president radiated assurance, even after the onset of polio in 1921. Like the 46th president, FDR was confident enough to think big, to focus emphatically on “the forgotten man”, and to pursue results that would be beneficial, even if they weren’t always perfect.
FDR burnished his reputation by successfully leading the United States during the Second World War, building a powerful wartime coalition with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union that ultimately defeated Nazi Germany.
Roosevelt marshalled the strengths of millions of Americans in the military, industry and agriculture sectors, inspiring the citizenry with a vision of a “Four Freedoms” post-war world that would hopefully avoid the mistakes made after the First World War. He forged the triumphant “Big Three” grand alliance that recognized the limits of U.S. power and compromised with the different priorities of British and Soviet partners.
Ironically, it was during those years that FDR experienced his own most problematic encounter with an outsized ego. In 1944-45 — as both the war and his own life were nearing their end — Roosevelt undercut his own successes by sliding into hubris.
Increasing strains on his health created tensions between ego and pragmatism. Roosevelt imagined he could remain a national and global leader in Olympian fashion, even undertaking a debilitating journey in 1945 to the Yalta conference, the meeting of the heads of government of the U.S., the U.K. and the Soviet Union to discuss the post-war reorganization of Germany and Europe. He died a few weeks later.
Roosevelt seemingly began to believe that only he could make many moving parts proceed in the desired direction. Long-time colleague and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes once grumbled: “You won’t talk frankly even with people who are loyal to you … you keep your cards closely up against your belly.”
Upon his death, there was no Roosevelt team fully briefed or experienced enough to ensure his vision lived on.
Neither Vice-President Harry Truman nor recently appointed Secretary of State Edward Stettinius had been fully consulted about the atomic bomb, for example, as well as complex plans for post-war Big Three collaboration. This paved the way for shifts to more unilateral policies and style that Roosevelt would almost certainly have bemoaned.
— Joe Biden and Jill Biden greeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and First Lady Olena Zelenska, 21 September 2023.
If Biden in 2023 does not precisely echo FDR’s 1944-45 mindset, there is a common denominator: the challenge of shielding bold, even brilliant leadership from the creeping debilitation of hubris.
Voters will do their cost accounting in 2024. Ironically, their calculations will also be subject to the complex tensions between personal emotions and pragmatism.