Nine Months of President Biden – Taking Stock

Even if one is tempted to give Joe Biden an A grade for good intentions, it is difficult to justify more than a D based on the bulk of his performance

By Anil Madan

President Biden has just completed his ninth month in office. Some years ago, Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in his memoir that Biden had been wrong on nearly every single foreign policy and national security issue for four decades. Last week, Gates did not back away from his statement and, indeed sharply criticized Biden — and Trump as well — for botching the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Even if one is tempted to give Joe Biden an A grade for good intentions, it is difficult to justify more than a D based on the bulk of his performance. Certainly, there are bright spots such as the initial Covid-19 vaccine rollout and an economy that continued to boom, until it began to show signs of faltering amidst supply chain disruptions and inflation.

The fairest assessment of the Biden administration’s performance to date is that it is a muddled mess. And that is a fair depiction of the country as a whole — a muddled mess.

Lurking in the shadows is the elephant in the room, Donald Trump. The gestation period of an elephant is 640-660 days. From Biden’s inauguration, that would coincide quite neatly, for the Republicans that is, with the 2022 midterm elections. Trump’s influence seemingly threatens to unleash a herd of little Republican elephants who could upend control of both the House and Senate and put Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy as the leaders at the lecterns in those chambers of Congress.

Whether it is domestic policy or foreign policy, or hybrid domestic-foreign issues, Biden has little to celebrate. In fact, his percentage approval ratings in recent polls have sunk to the low 40s, lower than Barack Obama at a similar point in his presidency and, in some polls, even lower than Donald Trump. One is reluctant to look to Trump’s supporters for analysis but Kelly Anne Conway, a former senior-level Trumpkin, put it aptly that Biden is not showing any ability to leverage his 47 years of Washington experience but is revealing that he is a product of that extended life in the Washington swamp.

Conway also noted that Vice President Harris has the highest disapproval rating of any vice president since tracking of that metric started. Commenting on whether this reflects racism and sexism — the default Democratic theme of dismissal for criticism of incompetence — she said, “It’s called eyesight and hearing.” The point is that both Biden and Harris are failing miserably among Independents. And tightening races for next month’s elections suggest that Democrat governors are vulnerable. 

A muddled mess

The US-Mexico border is a muddled mess. Lack of strategic thinking is the culprit. Whereas one may applaud the humanitarian instinct to welcome the desperate and oppressed to America, there is nevertheless, at least a tacit recognition, even within Biden’s administration, that unfettered access into the country in violation of immigration laws is unacceptable. Nevertheless, the administration continues to send mixed signals, first seemingly inviting illegal immigrants to come as asylum seekers and then having Vice President Harris tell them not to come. Then there was the agglomeration of Haitian immigrants that again led to mixed messages. Some were allowed in, some were deported. When Biden declared that he would not turn hungry people away, the obvious question was why not send food to them in Mexico?

One has to wonder if sending a message that enforcement of immigration laws will be weak and inconsistent does not aggravate the problem rather than solve it by encouraging hundreds of thousands to flock to the border in the hope of being lucky enough to get into the US whether legally or illegally. The result is that the Customs and Border Patrol is overwhelmed, immigration courts are overwhelmed, and nobody is doing the nation’s Governors a favour by sending unskilled immigrants to their states. The Washington Post reportsthat thousands of immigrants tired of waiting for action on their asylum claims have decided to march north to Mexico City, i.e., eventually on to the US. 

Then there was the Iran nuclear deal. President Biden announced even before he was elected that he would “rejoin” the deal, seemingly forgetting that a contract requires the agreement of both sides. Quite predictably, the Iranians didn’t show any excitement at America’s reengagement overture. To the contrary, the Ayatollahs refused to negotiate directly with the American delegation, offering instead to go through European intermediaries. Astonishingly, the Biden administration agreed to this insulting condition. Now, news reports abound that the Iran nuclear deal is dead. But the Ayatollahs had already said that. One can understand that preventing Iran from getting to a nuclear weapon was a priority, but basic negotiation skills elude this administration. To the extent that this was a challenge the Biden administration hoped to meet and surmount, it has failed miserably. One shudders to think that the Ayatollahs may be crazy enough to deploy a nuclear weapon against Israel or Saudi Arabia.

So also, in the case of North Korea, the Biden administration almost pleads for negotiations. Kim Jong Nuke goes beyond nukes and tests a hypersonic missile. Both Presidents Obama and Trump noted that the US could destroy North Korea if the Hermit Kingdom attacked American interests. Perhaps the Biden administration would do better to recognize that Kim Jong Nuke’s missile and nuclear capabilities are as much a threat to China as to South Korea, Japan, and the US. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Nuke and his Sister Ms Nuke, refuse to negotiate. One wonders if they are getting their cues from Beijing.

The looming behemoth

Then there is the case of China, the looming behemoth. It started with the meeting in Anchorage where Secretary of State Antony Blinken began with a vituperative blast accusing China of being a threat to global stability and expressing “our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States and economic coercion toward our allies.” The Chinese representative Yang Jiechi, a senior member of the Chinese Politburo was having none of it and unleashed a 17-minute diatribe, excoriating the failed Democracy of the US, its own record of human rights violations particularly mentioning the Black Lives Matter movement, and ending with the observation that “the United States does not have the qualification to say that in front of China it speaks from a position of strength.” Nevertheless, Blinken sat there and continued his meeting with the Chinese. Perhaps the Biden administration would have done better to walk out in a huff when so outmaneuvered.

Biden’s problems with China continue. The CCP continues its assault on Hong Kong and dismisses any contention that the US or anyone else has a right even to express concerns about China’s burgeoning military takeover of the South China Sea, its denial of responsibility even to cooperate with investigations into the origins of the Covid pandemic, or its predatory actions around the world and with respect to theft of intellectual property. Its treatment of Uyghurs and threats to Taiwan are declared to be “internal” matters beyond the purview of the US or any other nation.

China’s threat to Taiwan continues to take on ominous overtones. Just the other day, Biden blurted out a comment that the US is prepared to defend Taiwan against an attack by China. This conflicts with the official US policy that is known as “strategic ambiguity.” US State Department officials were quick to walk back Biden’s comments to suggest that there is no change in US policy. So, we now have a doctrine of strategic idiocy. 

Meanwhile, the US remains dependent on China for much of what the American people buy on a daily basis. Taiwan is a major supplier of semiconductors and China knows just how dependent the US is on this source.

The one achievement touted as significant is the AUKUS deal, a trilateral agreement among Australia, Britain, and the US to supply nuclear submarines to Australia. In truth, the deployment of any such force is years off. And whether it was deliberate or not, the handling of the matter was bungled to the point that France felt slighted. China, of course, reacted with outrage to the announcement. It is some achievement when the same manoeuvre angers both the French and the Chinese.

The national scene

On the Covid-19 front the US has done relatively well with vaccine administration and penetration, even being strategically prepared to administer booster shots to most of the US population, at least those who are not vaccine resisters. Meanwhile, Biden has made commitments to ship hundreds of millions of vaccines around the world. Whereas he gets high marks here, the pandemic continues to plague America as well as the world.

The domestic policy agenda is also a muddle. The President’s basic infrastructure bill garnered bipartisan support but in a curious manoeuvre, Democrats seemed unable to come together on a broader spending proposal. Biden gives the appearance of negotiating against himself as he pleads for support from two recalcitrant Democrat Senators.

The national scene in America is filled with rancour as Trump supporters continue to deny that Trump lost the election. The “Big Lie” is what the media call it. Trump’s inner circle of advisors and supporters defy Congressional subpoenas and Republican members of Congress argue against enforcing the subpoenas.

The State of Texas defies Supreme Court precedent on abortion rights but a right-leaning cadre of Supreme Court justices condones the Texas manoeuver. The impression is that Biden is not in charge of anything.

The Federal Reserve continues to deny that inflation is inflation, and the Treasury Secretary supports this disinformation.

Climate change continues to befuddle America and the Biden administration. In a state of confusion, the Biden administration urges OPEC countries to increase production while damping down oil production at home. The Europeans too urge Putin to increase gas supplies while curbing exploration of their own.

So, as we see the effects of major weather events and as the world prepares for the Glasgow conference, there is no cohesive understanding of what is going on, let alone a cohesive strategy among the nations of the world.

Cheerz…
Bwana


* Published in print edition on 29 October 2021

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