Sunak and Biden are strikingly similar - experienced, pragmatic and, yes, a little boring

For the UK PM, who took office amid economic crisis and after months of political upheaval, Biden might offer a blueprint for political rehabilitation

By Mark Landler and Stephen Castle

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom meets with President Joe Biden in Bali, Indonesia, on November 16, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom meets with President Joe Biden in Bali, Indonesia, on November 16, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Published: Sun 11 Dec 2022, 10:56 PM

For years, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump were viewed as populist twins — flamboyant, scandal-scarred, norm-busting figures, acting in a trans-Atlantic political drama. With both out of office, at least for now, a more timely and intriguing comparison is between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and President Joe Biden.

Though they differ by obvious metrics — young vs. old, conservative vs. liberal — Sunak and Biden are using strikingly similar methods to govern in the wake of their larger-than-life predecessors. Both have tried to let the steam out of their countries’ hothouse politics by making a virtue of being, well, a little boring.

The similarities are more than stylistic: Both lead parties that are divided between centrist and more extreme forces, whether to the right, for Sunak, or the left, for the American president. And both are dogged by poor poll numbers, in part because of economic ills but also because their pragmatic, undramatic style can seem ill-suited to the polarized politics of post-Brexit Britain and post-Trump America.

For Sunak, who took office in October amid an economic crisis and after months of political upheaval that left his Conservative Party exhausted and unpopular, Biden might offer a blueprint for political rehabilitation.

Two years into his term, Biden has confounded the sceptics, with the Democratic Party performing unexpectedly well in the midterm elections, in defiance of historical trends that typically punish the party in power.

“Boris and Trump were generalists, short on details and ideologically flexible, but the sheer force of their personality brought them to the top, and eventually led to their downfalls,” said Frank Luntz, an American political strategist and pollster who was a classmate of Johnson’s at Oxford University.

“Rishi and Biden are the exact opposite,” Luntz continued. “Not particularly great communicators, quite often trapped in the weeds of details, but able to move their governments forward because of their detailed knowledge and experience.”

Circumstances forced both leaders to press for emergency legislation right off the bat: Biden, to cushion the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic; Sunak, to counter the disastrous foray into trickle-down tax policy engineered by his immediate predecessor, Liz Truss. That spooked financial markets, sent the British pound into a tailspin and drove up interest rates.

After passing his Covid relief bill, Biden managed to push through ambitious legislation to combat climate change. With narrow majorities in the House and especially in the Senate, he had to fend off progressives in his party and win over centrists such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who held up that bill until he negotiated compromises with the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York.

Sunak, who has a more than 70-seat majority in Parliament, may not face as much legislative needle-threading in passing his package of tax increases and spending cuts. But he does have to contend with an increasingly unruly Tory Party, which is making it difficult for him to settle a trade dispute with the European Union over Northern Ireland, overhaul Britain’s cumbersome planning rules for home building, or even construct onshore windmills.

“He’s being pushed around by various factions in the Tory Party,” said Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the United States. “Biden, by contrast, is quite resolute about his moderate, centrist principles.”

While Sunak’s allies make no explicit comparisons between him and Biden, several have claimed his quiet, unflashy competence is restoring stability after the political roller-coaster of the last three months. On returning to the Cabinet as a senior minister, Michael Gove declared “boring is back,” and joked that it was the government’s “utter determination to try to be as dull as possible.”

Asked in an interview whether the motif of Sunak’s leadership was that “boring is the new sexy,” Mark Harper, the transport secretary, smiled and replied: “What he’s about is a government that’s grown up, that grips the issues that people are concerned about and gets on with governing.”

Unlike Biden, 80, whose aides still periodically find themselves having to clean up unguarded statements, Sunak, 42, rarely commits a gaffe. His cautious persona and stilted speaking style have drawn comparisons to John Major, who in 1990 succeeded a more forceful prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Major’s electoral record was mixed: He surprised many by winning a modest majority of 21 in the general election in 1992. But that victory was followed swiftly by a financial crisis that sapped his reputation and paved the way for a landslide victory five years later by the Labour Party leader, Tony Blair.

This time, the crisis struck before Sunak took office. But it leaves him with no more than two years to rescue his party before the next election, and he faces the headwinds of soaring inflation, rising interest rates, labour unrest and a recession. Depending on when Sunak chooses to call that vote, there is a chance that American voters could be electing a president around the same time.

Will Biden be in that race? The chances of his running again rose after the midterms, not to mention the president’s proposal to rearrange the Democratic Party’s primary calendar, so that South Carolina, which resurrected his presidential fortunes in 2020, will now vote first, ahead of the Iowa caucus.

There is no evidence that Biden and Sunak talked politics in their first face-to-face meeting as leaders at a summit in Indonesia last month. Indeed, given their disparity in age, background and politics, there is little indication they will develop the kind of rapport enjoyed by, say, Blair and President Bill Clinton. When the Tories elected Sunak as leader, Biden hailed it as a “groundbreaking milestone,” though he added, “As my brother would say, ‘Go figure.’”

At the moment, the oddsmakers are betting against Sunak. There is even speculation that if the Conservatives get thrashed in local elections next May, his enemies might move against him and try to reinstall Johnson. But Sunak’s allies hope for a Biden-like surprise, which could give him a solid base for the next general election (it must take place by January 2025).

Given Labour’s formidable lead in opinion polls — and a Labour leader, Keir Starmer, who rivals Sunak in competence over charisma — few analysts see a path for Sunak to a convincing victory. But some think the outcome could be much closer than some of Labour’s supporters now expect. For one thing, Sunak’s poll ratings exceed those of his battered party, which is the reverse of Biden and the Democrats before the midterm elections.

“There is a big difference between what voters think of the Conservative Party and what voters think of Sunak,” said Peter Kellner, a polling expert. “The big question now is whether the Tory Party drags Sunak’s ratings down, or Sunak drags the Tory Party’s ratings up.”

Those are the same questions handicappers were asking about Biden in the anxious days leading up to the midterms. If both he and Sunak are in still office in 2025, it will be proof that boring is not only back, but political gold.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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