The hostage president

17 November 2021

2:42 PM

17 November 2021

2:42 PM

Every president is a hostage to fortune, but every president makes his own luck. The George W. Bush presidency was redefined by the 9/11 attacks and ruined by its response. The crash of the markets in 2008 pushed Barack Obama ahead of John McCain in the polls. The Democrats’ choice of Hillary Clinton in 2016 was their misfortune and a gift to Donald Trump. Would Joe Biden have won in 2020 without Covid-19 closing the global economy?

The first year of the Biden presidency ends as it began, only with less luck. Biden tells us that the sky is falling and that legislation can heal the planet, but his administration cannot organize a vote in Congress. Through the fall, Biden’s wild spending plans were held hostage by the Squad in the House and by Democratic moderates in the Senate. He blamed the Republicans, of course, but he was quite clearly the prisoner of his own side, and in particular the ideological excesses of the far left. The good news is that the Green New Deal is going nowhere. The bad news is that this administration has gone into paralysis as the global economy reopens.

The administration tells us that the way out of the pandemic is to take a third shot of an experimental, rush-released Covid-19 vaccine, but it also declares the pandemic to be perpetual. No western European state is pushing for the mass vaccination of five-year-olds. In Britain, the government has declared that the panic is over: Covid-19 is now endemic, so we must learn to live with it and wash our hands more often. Is there some heretofore unnoticed biological difference between Americans and Europeans? Or is it that Big Pharma isn’t as big in Belgium as it is here? They do say that one hand washes the other.

The administration tells us that it has restored harmonious relations with allies, but it left them in the lurch in Kabul and approved of the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that makes Germany, the key EU power, dependent on Russian gas. As for rivals, relations with China continue to worsen. Twice this year, Biden ad-libbed that the US would fight a war over Taiwan. Twice, some anonymous handler advised the press that the president hadn’t meant it. We must assume that similar messages were sent to Beijing. They should have been. Wars have been started by less.

The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, describes himself on his official Twitter account as “husband, dad, (very) amateur guitarist, and the 71st Secretary of State serving under the leadership of @POTUS Biden.” We are supposed to commend this humble-brag sequencing of responsibilities, and overlook the missing comma that implies Biden has got through seventy secretaries of state so far this year. The rest of the world, however, sees only a (very) amateur diplomat who has received the runaround from Iran in the Vienna talks and a public dressing-down from China’s diplomats when he tried to ambush them in Alaska.

There is a bum note of Nineties nostalgia about Blinken. Tony Blair liked to relax with an ax, and Bill Clinton liked to blow his own horn too, but we are in a different, less harmonious age. As in Congress, the administration is spinning its wheels in the world, then blaming its lack of traction on the other side. Yes, an incoming administration is hostage to the circumstances it inherits. And yes, the rise of China is the kind of challenge that would have tested the most able of American presidencies. But this administration inherited a promising position. It’s building on it that’s the problem.

The Trump administration broke the taboos of post-1990 foreign policy and disavowed a failed, quasi-imperial overreach. Biden could have continued the development of a grand strategy for the twenty-first century, and without the political costs that might have accrued. Instead, he has combined gestures of Trumpian retrenchment with imperious guff and quaint grandiosity. The gap between ideals and reality is widening, and the US’s rivals are probing that gap more and more boldly. It would be most unfortunate if we tumble into it.

Biden is hostage to the Democrats’ self-serving environmental mania for the same reason that his foreign policy is hostage to the rivals it seeks to contain. He is not driving events. His policies are driven by ideology, his responses by the kind of pique that the Democrats called unpresidential when it came from Donald Trump. As prices rise and inflation creeps up, the administration chides us for lacking confidence in its abilities but seems unable to act competently. Always generous in supplying visual images of his ineptitude, Biden puffed up the end of the world for the UN’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, trumpeted the US as the eco-redeemer of the planet, then fell asleep in front of the cameras when he got there.

Biden responds to the rebuffs of reality with disconnection and coldness. This is curious, for his long career is a record of compulsive emoting and the kind of adroit flexibility that would impress Simone Biles. Perhaps it is his bad luck that he reached the office too late in life. Perhaps the office, as it does with weak presidents, is working him, rather than the other way round. As hostages to his misfortunes, we must hope that our luck holds in 2022.

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