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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Joe Biden keeps a tactical lid on expectations early in his term

President Joe Biden speaks Thursday in the White

President Joe Biden speaks Thursday in the White House Rose Garden as Vice President Kamala Harris listens. Credit: Bloomberg/Yuri Gripas

When he announced narrow gun-control orders last week in response to mass shootings, President Joe Biden acknowledged that broader reforms such as banning assault weapons would need congressional action that's proved elusive.

"We’ve got a long way to go — it seems like we always have a long way to go," he said. "They've offered plenty of thoughts and prayers … but they’ve passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence," Biden said Thursday.

For now the president has directed the Justice Department to draft measures to address the unregulated sale of kits used to assemble "ghost guns," which avoid background checks and remain largely untraceable.

Still shy of his term's 90-day mark, Biden doesn’t have enough of a record to assess successes and failures. So far, his public statements reveal an effort to manage expectations.

On Wednesday, as he pitched his $2.3 trillion tax-and-rebuild plan, Biden noted the compromises that would have to shape its details and scope. He called the debate "welcome," compromise "inevitable" and changes in his plan certain.

"In the next few weeks, the vice president and I will be meeting with Republicans and Democrats to hear from everyone. And we’ll be listening. We’ll be open to good ideas and good-faith negotiations," he said.

On Tuesday, Biden bumped up the deadline for all U.S. adults' eligibility for coronavirus vaccines. He could do this knowing many states already had that goal well on its way to fulfillment. So full eligibility across the U.S. was targeted two weeks earlier than he first announced.

While hailing this as "good news," Biden was quick to add what would prove to be his sternest expectation management of the week.

"Let me be deadly earnest with you: We aren’t at the finish line. We still have a lot of work to do. We’re still in a life-and-death race against this virus," Biden said at the White House.

The president warned that "new variants of the virus are spreading and they’re moving quickly. Cases are going back up, hospitalizations are no longer declining."

The calibrated tone of these statements might stand out only in contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump's sloppy and extravagant vows. Trump huffed and puffed about a great national health care program, an effort to "drain the swamp," a new relationship with North Korea and a miraculous comeback for American manufacturing — all mirages.

Biden also seeks to manage expectations of progressive activists in his Democratic Party. On Friday, he announced the promised bipartisan commission to study structural changes to the U.S. Supreme Court, including court expansion and term limits.

Biden, who said during the campaign he's "not a fan" of "court-packing," might have gotten a bit of timely help in tamping down expectations — from Justice Stephen Breyer, a nominee of President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

Breyer said in a talk last week at Harvard Law School that he seeks to "make those whose initial instincts may favor important structural (or other similar institutional) changes, such as forms of ‘court-packing,’ think long and hard before embodying those changes in law."

Former President Barack Obama dashed a few high expectations born of his soaring rhetoric. His former vice president seems determined to avoid doing the same, at least for the time being.