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Biden Day 1: Messages from the Oval Office

January 22, 2021

There are plenty of pictures across the media of Joe Biden’s newly-decorated Oval Office. Carpet changed, Winston’s bust banished once more, replaced by Robert Kennedy. Pictures of former presidents reconfigured. Andrew Jackson, scourge of native Americans, replaced by Franklin D Roosevelt, who takes the prime spot above the fireplace.

Americans are great lovers of symbolism, or at least journalists are. I doubt whether poor families living in shacks in West Virginia would be bothered one way or another. Contrast this scene with the Prime Minister’s office in my own dear country. I doubt if anyone in Britain apart from his closest minions could tell you what Johnson’s office actually looks like, let alone what pictures are hanging on the walls.

This is partly because his constitutional role is different from that of Biden. He doesn’t sign bills into law. That’s the Queen’s job, though she doesn’t do signing ceremonies. Occasionally we get a peep into her office, which allows the royal sages interpret for us commoners the meaning of her little symbolic tweaks – usually in the form of photos of offspring and relatives. If we’re lucky, we might get to see the electric fire that demonstrates her frugality.

No electric fires on view in the Oval Office. Only a marble fireplace resembling the entrance to a Roman temple, with what looks like a glass screen, suggesting that it’s been a while since anyone lit logs in it.

But here’s an interesting thing, to me at least. Perhaps because I’m stupid and everyone else is smart, nobody has commented on the stuff on top of the Resolute Desk. Biden sits in his executive chair. In front of him you see a pile of Executive Orders ready to sign. There’s a box full of pens, presumably there in case the one he’s using to sign the orders runs out. Ok, I know that’s not what they’re there for – they’re souvenirs given to onlookers and acolytes, not back-ups in case the government procurement system has broken down.

There’s also the phone. Lots of buttons, but no red hotline to Putin. And apart from a coffee cup and saucer, most likely in White House livery, nothing else.

Perhaps that’s because he’s only just arrived, but I was surprised to see no IT. No tablets, laptops, smartphones. No nothing. Is that because he doesn’t use computers, or because an HP laptop or a Mac would lower the tone of the occasion?

When the photographers leave, can we expect him to strip off the mask, kick off his shoes, take out the IPad from one of the drawers and get stuck into some serious browsing. Ratings perhaps. Or shark documentaries like his predecessor. Or will he be completely reliant on his minions, who will print out his emails and give him his security briefings on bits of paper with large letters and even larger pictures?

You would have thought that rather than posing at his desk with objects that would have been almost identical to those used by Truman or Eisenhower, he would at least include symbols of technology. Though probably not the smartphone, because that would remind everyone of the Orange Monster and his incessant tweeting.

At the age of 78, you wouldn’t expect Biden to be much of a geek, but are we to deduce from his spartan desktop that he intends to preside by the pen, the phone and the tone of his voice? On one level, perhaps that’s encouraging. There’s nothing worse than a politician pretending to have skills he doesn’t possess. But on another, it suggests that he’s a relic of an earlier, un-wired age.

I don’t buy the latter hypothesis. His desk is sparse because he’s only just arrived. But it will be worth watching over the next few months as the clutter starts mounting up. Will we see him in shirtsleeves stabbing away at an IPad? Or will the Resolute Desk remain an austere monument, to be used only as a prop for ceremonial occasions?

Should be interesting, or profoundly boring, depending on your point of view. Right now, I prefer the latter.

I can only add one further thought. I spent years sitting at a desk that looked like a volcano at various stages of eruption. How nice it would have been to to have someone available at all times to clear it for me.

From → History, Media, Politics, UK, USA

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