When it comes to those who have a leadership role — a Senator, maybe, or a CEO — I’ve always most admired the quiet ones.
I don’t know Warren Buffet personally but he strikes me as someone who doesn’t bellow and scream. I imagine he talks. I thought it was admirable when my father’s biography was published under the title “Quiet Diplomat.” There’s something that feels honorable, maybe humble, about those who speak softly no matter the size of their stick.
In recent months, President Biden has taken a fair (or unfair) amount of abuse for his failure to excite the Democratic troops. It’s alleged that he doesn’t have a message, or that he doesn’t deliver what he has. He stumbles over his words; occasionally true. He lacks a towering rhetorical presence; probably so.
Biden’s predecessor still loves the roar of the crowd; he’s diminished if there are empty seats. He has the volume turned up on any microphone he uses. He’s eager to rouse his loyalists with red-meat lines, “Lock her up” being one of the earliest and most enduring. He’s happy to shout his views and have them echoed by the masses. The truth of what he trumpets doesn’t matter. What matters is volume. Noise.
I don’t really know Biden’s view on bold rhetoric. Maybe he admires it. Maybe it’s what he aspired to offer when, as an adolescent, he clinched his jaw and steeled his mind to slow down the stuttering that led classmates to snicker. Neither do I know what this President says to families of slain soldiers when I see him touch their shoulders, lean in close and whisper. Biden is a man acquainted with grief, and the truth of grief always outweighs the photo op. Grief whispers, it doesn’t shout.
All this, it seems to me, echoes Biden’s career as a Senator. He was not the one most likely to give rousing speeches. He was usually spending his time building relationships within his Party and across party lines. He knew that consensus was the only path to legislation, and he embodied it. He listened. Imagine that.
Critics point out that Biden owes it to his supporters to be a political leader during these days of blazing competition. They accuse him of not leading if he speaks gently. I beg to differ.
Robert Hubbell recently pointed out, when reflecting on the President’s management of the U.S. economy, that during the years of the previous Administration, America’s national debt increased every single year. Trump was so eager to reward his cronies with massive tax cuts (for corporations and the wealthy) that he sunk the nation ever deeper in debt.
By contrast, says Hubbell, “during Biden’s first year in office, the deficit decreased by $350 billion and is on track to decrease by an additional $1.5 trillion by the end of this fiscal year. The latter will be the biggest decline in a single year in American history! And for the first time since 2016, the Treasury Department is planning to pay down debt for the current quarter.” Biden said all this in a press briefing last week. He said it softly. No one gave him headlines.
There’s something gracious about quiet leadership. It feels classy. In the face of intractable problems, it exudes its own kind of confidence, as if the analysis of mind-stumping issues is suited to reverie, as if hard decisions require some thoughtfulness enhanced by reflection and silence.
I worry some about President Biden’s low poll numbers. I wish he were more popular. But I don’t wish he were noisier. I think he’s done a stellar job at everything except, perhaps, selling himself. If Republicans reclaim the House or Senate in 2022, I’ll be profoundly disappointed (read: bordering on suicidal ideation). But I won’t yield my notion about what constitutes actual leadership.
The leadership I crave calls for the willingness to sacrifice for a vision, the compassion to care more deeply for others than for oneself, and the quiet courage to put oneself at the mercy of a harsh and sometimes cruel public. I like it most when all this comes wrapped in a soft-spoken, reassuring, honorable quiet that drowns out a frightened child’s stuttering.