Poor old Joe Biden. He might have won the electoral college and the popular vote but he’ll never feel the love of his underlings like Donald Trump did.
The former president’s first full cabinet meeting in June 2017 remains an unparalleled opera of oleaginousness. Secretary after secretary all but flung themselves at his feet, sang songs of praise and paid homage to the divine emperor of the universe.
Has any parent ever known such undying adoration from their child? Only King Lear from Goneril and Regan, perhaps. And most telling was the fact that the world was allowed to see it. Trump made sure it was one more chapter in his reality TV presidency.
Not really Biden’s style. His first cabinet meeting on Thursday was relocated to the East Room because of coronavirus restrictions – the 16 permanent members wore face masks and sat in a giant square with empty chairs between them – but was otherwise a return to the staid old way of doing things.
The main item on the agenda was not the American president’s sculpted handsomeness, nor his towering intellect, nor his indubitable virility, nor his ability to hit holes in one, but merely his freshly announced $2tn infrastructure plan.
Flanked by the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, with the vice-president, Kamala Harris, opposite,
Biden said he was asking five cabinet members to “take special responsibility to explain the plan to the American public”.
He took no questions from the media and, after less than two and a half minutes, reporters were ushered out. “I thank the press for being here, but I’ll talk to you all later.”
The 16 permanent members wore face masks and sat in a giant square with empty chairs between them. Photograph: Leigh Vogel/EPA
But even this brief glimpse behind the curtain spoke volumes about how much has changed. White men composed
nearly three-quarters of Trump’s cabinet; they make up only a third of Biden’s.
On Thursday the East Room included Harris, the first woman and first woman of colour to service as vice-president; Janet Yellen, the first woman to lead the treasury department; Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay secretary confirmed to the cabinet; and Deb Haaland, the first Native American in a president’s cabinet.
“This is the first in American history that the cabinet looks like America,” Biden said. “That’s what we promised we were going to do, and we’ve done it.”
If Trump represented a backlash against America’s first Black president, Biden’s cabinet represents a backlash against the backlash.
Their refusal to play to the cameras with ever escalating sycophancy was also a reminder that the reality TV presidency did not get renewed for a second season.
Ratings are down and, such is the absence of scandals, Biden’s pet dogs are making news for biting people and
depositing poo in a White House hallway. Cabinet members like Tom Vilsack and Denis McDonough simply can’t compete with Ben Carson or Rick Perry for comic effect.
Spare a thought for the late-night comedians suddenly going cold turkey. How they feasted on that first Trump cabinet meeting, which began with Mike Pence declaring that it was “the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice-president to the president who is keeping his word to the American people”.
Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, followed up: “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda.” As Trump went around the room, nearly every secretary strove to outdo the one before in the olympics of obsequiousness.
Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert summed up: “These are adults, some of them are billionaires, and they’re just happy to have their leashes yanked as the cameras roll for the dear leader.
“I did not know that Trump has such a strict ‘please check your balls at the door’ policy. Honestly, this is next-level weird. This is an unprecedented public stroke-fest for an emotionally frail man.”
It was, of course, funny until it wasn’t. In a country where politics is the new religion, with all its faith and fervour and absolutes, worship of that particular Messiah led all the way to the deadly storming of the US Capitol on 6 January. Ordinary Joe is more in the vein of Bertolt Brecht: unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.