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An educated guess: Joe Biden is not doing what every first-year president starts doing around Day 200 of his presidency: running for reelection. After the two weeks he has just endured, he is doing the thing presidents don’t do until their last months: running for history.
Right now, he is losing that campaign.
Biden, a couple of months short of age 79, can’t have decided whether he will seek a second term in 2024; he cannot even remotely imagine the state of his health or the health of the country from this vantage point. But the president has been around politics and presidents — he served with eight of them (Richard M. Nixon to Barack Obama) and watched one of them with horror (Donald Trump) before assuming the posi- tion himself — enough to know that it is his place in history that is in jeopardy now.
Coursing through his mind almost certainly are these questions: Did his “I’m squarely behind” state- ment about his Afghanistan policy position him as a courageous figure of strong character and steely intelligence? Or did it cast him as a headstrong leader confident of his own misconceptions, even when they conflicted with the consensus of civilian and military experts? Has he handled the virus, and the vaccine wars, with deft- ness? Or is he dividing the country with his crusade for the vaccine and his defiance of the notion that state governors have a vital role in a political system that makes federalism one of its core values?
Stated simply: Will he be remembered as a visionary and unifier? Or a bungler and divider? To make it simpler: Is he a 21st-century version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Or Woodrow Wilson?
The answer comes in two parts. He’s neither FDR or Wilson, but purely distilled Joe Biden, for better or worse. And as for the visionary/unifier dichotomy, the easy answer is that time will tell; sometimes the easy answer is also the smart answer. And here the example of John F. Kennedy is illuminating. Kennedy faced the brutal Cold War challenge of the construction of the Berlin Wall on his 205th day in office. Biden began facing the calamity of the Taliban takeover on his 207th day in office.
In some ways, the 35th president had a bigger challenge than the 46th. Kennedy already had suf- fered the humiliation of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion before his poor performance facing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna summit, and then the alarming Soviet announcement that it would resume atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
“Kennedy was able to make a dramatic comeback,” said Matt Dallek, a political historian with George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “The Bay of Pigs was a disaster for the Cubans and a huge set- back for Kennedy. Afghanistan is the same for Biden. But it may be out- weighed dramatically in voters’ minds by the pan- demic and the economy. They are the two great intertwined issues of the moment, and they may end up being more significant for his presidency than Afghanistan.”
It took Kennedy’s forthright “I am the responsible officer of this government” statement after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco to trans- form him from a man who acted as if he were auditioning for the presidency into one who was occupy- ing the office. Many of his revered predecessors — Wilson on the League of Nations, Roosevelt on Japanese internment and his refusal to admit desperate Jews fleeing near-certain death at the hands of the Nazis — never did.
And for a man who ran on personal compassion — it has been Biden’s signature trait since joining the Senate in an era of flare trousers, the racehorse Secretariat and “Killing Me Softly With His Song” — the president has displayed a remarkable, almost shocking lack of emotional intelligence, making him seem more like the coldly analytical engineer Jimmy Carter than the mushy man from Delaware.
Like Carter, who had a tin ear for his putative Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, Biden has stirred the ire — the incredulity — of legislative leaders of his own party. When he said earlier this month that there would be a time for second-guessing, he may not have realized he was courting the sort of intraparty inquisition not seen in Congress since Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas undertook his Vietnam hearings beginning in 1966, when L yndon B. Johnson’s presidential approval ratings were at about the same level as Biden’s today.
The Democrats are worried. With slender majorities and a president showing his age, they have ample reason for their disquiet.
Long before the Afghanistan crisis, the Democrats’ options for the next several years have been cloudy, in part because their continued control of Capitol Hill is in serious danger and in part because of uncertainty whether Biden, already the oldest president, will run again.
The talk among many leading Democrats is that Vice President Kamala Harris, burdened with the toughest portfolio in Washington — safeguarding voting rights, handling the immigration crisis — will be difficult to nominate and almost impossible to elect
if Biden chooses to retire in 2025, and that the party is “grooming” Pete Buttigieg as the substitute nominee.
This talk — which I have heard several times from people with no connection to each other but with con- viction about the “plan” –ignores the notion that it is risible to think “the Democrats” are conspiring to do anything. Besides, the parties — especially the Democrats — have employed the political equivalent of spray-aerosol air fresheners to the smoke-filled rooms of yore.
In any case, it is secretaries of state, not secretaries of transportation — a position that admittedly has existed only since 1967, with only 19 people holding the office — who have had the principal Cabinet claim to the presi- dency. Six of the nation’s secretaries of state, beginning with Thomas Jefferson (in office 1790-1793), have become president, though none more recent than James Buchanan (1845- 1849). And no one wants to be on a list that includes him, though Hillary Rodham Clinton tried. William Howard Taft was secretary of war and Herbert Hoover was secretary of commerce before winning the White House.
But in a way, all this talk is inconsequential, whereas Biden’s passage in the next several months has real consequence — not only for him, but also for the nation.