Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
Every presidential era has its pop-culture avatar. It’s a tradition going back at least as far back as the Kennedys and the King Arthur musical, Camelot, which became shorthand for their administration. The Reagan era offered up associations with Top Gun, with its swaggering confidence and military posturing. The Obamas had Hamilton, recasting the founding era with a defiant diversity and brilliant songwriting.
Closing in on the six-month mark of the Biden administration, we already have a strong contender: Ted Lasso, the Apple+ comedy returning for a second season, in which Jason Sudeikis plays a mustachioed Kansas football coach dispatched to England to lead a premier league football club.
Ted Lasso is defined by his earnest optimism in the face of a million obstacles. He is being set up to fail by the team’s new owner to spite her oligarch ex-husband. The Richmond Football Club’s fans have turned against their team, no longer believing they’re capable of achieving competence, let alone greatness, greeting their new coach with a chant of “wanker” from the stands. The players are cynical and dismissive; the press corps smells a dupe and a fool.
But Ted Lasso’s secret weapon is the unapologetic defense of old virtues: kindness, compassion, humility and humor. He can seem corny and clueless, but his decency is endearing.
The guileless Lasso barely hides his ignorance of the game (“Ties and no playoffs? Why do you even do this?”) and the fish-out-of-water story lends itself to such one-liners as: “How do you take your tea?” “Normally back to the counter because there’s been a terrible mistake.” His self-deprecating charm disarms rooms full of towering egos. He surprises people who’ve been conditioned to expect the worst and begins to adjust their expectations upward.
It is a refreshingly uncynical show – without ever being saccharine – and the Biden parallels extend beyond Sudeikis’ occasional fill-in as a too enthusiastic “Scranton Joe” on Saturday Night Live and their shared love of aviator shades.
Like Ted Lasso, Joe Biden is often underestimated – dismissed by some unkind eyes as doddering, by others as an aging all-star of an outdated Washington game whose bipartisan, backslapping rules are no longer played. He can seem earnest to the point of self-parody, so old-school that he looks like a Jimmy Stewart character dropped into a Quentin Tarantino film. He makes mistakes, stumbles through circular sentences, but his decency makes him hard to demonize.
The reflexive Republican attacks on Democrats as “radical” and “socialist” just don’t stick to him. At the 100-day mark, a clear majority of Americans told pollsters they saw Biden as “honest and trustworthy,” competent in the management of government and caring about “people like you.”
This is all in stark contrast to Donald Trump, his fundamental dishonesty and the civic mess he left behind: a divided and dispirited nation, reeling from pandemic mismanagement that led to the world’s worst Covid death toll and an insurrectionist attack on our Capitol. The Big Lie is his legacy.
And so Biden entered the Oval Office at a period of dark cynicism and deep dysfunction. The purest optimist would find it hard not to fixate on the problems and pessimism around him. But Biden’s defiant belief that he can make government work again is a throwback to the patriotic liberalism of his youth.
The sunny exteriors of both Biden and Sudeikis’s Lasso conceal dark tides. Biden battled the black dog of depression after the death of his wife, daughter and – decades later – his beloved son, Beau. But instead of retreating within himself, Biden chose to reach out with almost compulsive acts of empathy, trying to make those in pain feel less alone.
Lasso’s fictional scars are, of course, nowhere as profound as the very real torments Biden has faced, but a story arc in the first season was devoted to dealing with the fallout of a slow-motion divorce, leading to a crackup in Liverpool, ultimately channeled into compassion and forgiveness for the failings of others in his dysfunctional adopted family.
Even Biden’s way of dealing with critics has a distinctly Ted Lasso quality to it. Scores of politicians have tied themselves in knots trying to figure out how to combat Trump’s constant swipes and slurs. Biden essentially chooses to ignore him, treating Trump like the unhinged drunk at the end of the bar, and only occasionally swatting back with a barbed dismissiveness.
In general, Biden tries to win over critics with kindness. It’s an approach that strikes even some supporters as oblivious, but he’s not going to let someone else change his game.
Contests reveal character, and in one instant classic monologue, Lasso hustles a game of pub darts against the oligarchic and philandering former owner of the club while explaining, “Guys have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman, and it was painted on the wall there. It said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that. So I get back in my car and I’m driving to work, and all of a sudden it hits me. All them fellas that used to belittle me, not a single one of them were curious. You know, they thought they had everything all figured out. So they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me… who I was had nothing to do with it.”
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We live in a political world where people reflexively resort to hyper-partisan judgment rather than curiosity about the real people on the other side of the political aisle. This can make us cruel and stupid. So when polls of Trump supporters show they have a more favorable view of Vladimir Putin than Biden it has nothing to do with the actual person now in the Oval Office.
That rarest of all things, the genuinely good guy, cannot change the world all by himself. He may well lose more battles than he wins. But, in time, kindness will win converts and send forth tiny ripples of new possibilities that can change a culture. And just as Ted Lasso is ultimately able to earn the trust of his players and restore their ability to work together and win, the often-underestimated Joe Biden’s hope is that he might be able to do the same for the nation.