03 biden town hall SELECTS

This story was excerpted from the July 23 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

CNN  — 

It’s often said that each US president is the direct antidote to the excesses of his predecessor. 

You might have noticed that Donald Trump – who made his name by literally splashing it across apartment blocks, hotels, airliners, steaks and pretty much anything else that could be sold – was not the humblest president in US history. He was forever boasting about how smart he was, awarding himself A grades for his often-questionable performance – for instance, on the pandemic – and boasting falsely that no president before him had achieved what he did. 

Joe Biden is just the opposite. In a clear reaction to the Trump years, he’s made the presidency less noisy and attention-grabbing. 

Biden’s humility was on display throughout the CNN town hall in Ohio on Wednesday night when he spoke about his administration’s pandemic response. “One of the things that we’re doing is what I’ve done – we’ve done, excuse me – my team has done,” the President said. Later the ex-senator and former vice president argued that he was a foreign policy expert – but in the most modest way. “I’ve had a lot of experience internationally. And I mean that – not good or bad, just I have,” he said.  

Biden said his recent first foreign trip had made him realize his new status – but he avoided puffing his own ego. “The only place I have felt like what the office connotes is when I went to Europe and watched the rest of the heads of state react to me – not me, because I’m the President of the United States of America,” Biden said. 

Of course, Biden knows what he’s doing. Making out that he’s just like any other American is good politics. He’s following a method that he’s long used on the campaign trail to burnish his ordinary Joe image. He’s using modesty as a political weapon, and the fact that he is not personally objectionable creates an aura of moderation even though some of his social policy plans are quite radical. 

But he’s been around long enough – and been scarred by enough personal tragedy – that it’s pretty clear that his personality isn’t just an act. At the end of the town hall, Biden told CNN’s Don Lemon a self-deprecating story that underscored how different he was from Trump. 

“The first time I walked downstairs and they played ‘Hail to the Chief,’ I wondered, ‘Where is he?’ No, you think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding.”

“It’s a great tune, but … you feel a little self-conscious,” the President added.

The Republican reversal on vaccines

Biden calls it the Republican Party’s altar call. 

There’s been a sudden epiphany as lawmakers and TV opinion hosts from the Republican Party and Fox News – two organs more than happy to raise skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines – have changed their tune. In a striking statement, Sean Hannity, one of Fox’s most watched conservative pundits, called on his viewers this week to get their shots. “I can’t say it enough. Enough people have died. We don’t need any more death,” Hannity said on his show. In fairness, Hannity, a Trump confidant, had spoken out on vaccines before, despite often downplaying the pandemic. But such a strident message from such a powerful conservative opinion host led a chorus of other Fox hosts to board the vaccine train. 

One of the top people in the House Republican leadership, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, took the plunge and went to TV to urge viewers to do the same after waiting months to get his dose. This came after some members of Scalise’s House caucus compared Biden to a Nazi because he sent teams into hard-hit states to plead with people to get the life-saving shots. 

What’s behind the sudden change of heart

It’s always possible – though admittedly unfathomable in Washington – that people are simply, finally, doing the right thing. More likely, there’s a realization that it’s not good politics or business for the Republican Party or Fox to see its viewers getting sick and dying.  

Almost all of the states with the lowest vaccination rates and highest new case numbers in a summer surge of Covid-19 fueled by the Delta variant are Republican-run. Hospitals all over Trump country are filling up. There are tales from doctors and nurses of patients pleading for vaccines on their death beds, when it is too late. 

Whatever the reason – and frustrated by the previous conservative torrent of misinformation about vaccines – Biden will take it. “They’ve had an altar call, some of those guys,” Biden, a devout Roman Catholic, said at the CNN town hall on Wednesday night. “All of a sudden, they’re out there saying, ‘Let’s get vaccinated’ …. I shouldn’t make fun. That’s good.”