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Who’s In Charge?

Column: Biden's drift and weakness

• July 1, 2022 5:00 am

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"Which way am I going?" asked President Biden when he ended Thursday's press conference at the NATO summit in Madrid. He began to exit stage right, before someone redirected him toward stage left. This combination of ignorance and indecision was not new. Throughout his 18 months as president, Biden has been confused, uncertain, sluggish. He behaves as if he is guided by unseen forces. He moves on a course set by hidden captains.

People notice. Every time I speak to a conservative audience, I am asked who is really in charge in the White House. My answer has been that the president is in command. After all, institutions take on the character of their leaders. If all the White House has to offer is excuses, if decisions are made either slowly or randomly, if the communications team and the president and vice president seem to live on different planets, if incompetence and mismanagement appear throughout the government, it is because the chief executive allows it. No conspiracy is required to explain the ineptitude. This is Joe Biden we are talking about.

Lately, though, I have been having second thoughts. Not that Barack Obama or Ron Klain or Dr. Jill are running the show in secret. What I have been wondering, instead, is whether anyone is leading the government at all. There is no power, either overt or covert, in or behind the throne. The throne is empty.

Think of the economy, the border, and Ukraine. From time to time, Biden addresses these issues. He may even answer questions about them. The White House sends out press releases describing its latest initiatives. Vice President Harris or the second gentleman pops up somewhere to talk about all the good she and he are doing.

Yet each of these elements—the president, his staff, his spokesperson, his vice president, his policy—comes across as disconnected, discombobulated, as if each inhabits a separate sphere of activity. Whether because of Biden's age, or his weekend trips to Delaware, or years of remote work, or lower-level staff turnover, or a painstakingly slow decision-making process, or ideological stubbornness, or a lack of a strategic plan, this administration drifts from crisis to crisis, and from one bad headline to the next. And nothing improves.

The June 29 Reuters/Ipsos poll has Biden's job approval rating at 38 percent. By far, Americans say the economy, unemployment, and jobs are the most important problems facing the country. What is Biden's plan? He blames Vladimir Putin and the energy industry for high gas prices. He says it's the Federal Reserve's job to reduce inflation. He asks Middle East autocrats to pump more oil rather than easing the burden on domestic fossil fuel production. He wants more spending, more tax hikes, more regulation. Will Congress give him what he wants? Okay, you can stop laughing.

The result: America slouches toward stagflation because the alternative—reducing (non-China) tariffs, suspending "Buy American" provisions, reversing his entire energy policy, dropping his tax plans, committing to spending cuts—is unacceptable to the president.

Earlier this week, authorities found at least 50 dead people in a tractor-trailer on the side of a road in El Paso, Texas. The victims were illegal immigrants who had paid human traffickers to bring them to the United States. This ghastly discovery was a reminder of illegal immigration's human toll, and of the inadequacy of Biden's migration policies. One reporter asked White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre for her response to Republican critics. "The fact of the matter is the border is closed," Jean-Pierre said, "which is in part why you see people trying to make this dangerous journey using smuggling networks."

Closed? Unauthorized crossings hit another milestone in May, when Border Patrol encountered some 239,000 individuals. At that time, however, authorities could expel illegal migrants under public health regulation Title 42. The status of the Remain in Mexico program was unclear. Biden, of course, wants to end Title 42, and the Supreme Court ruled on June 30 that he has the authority to shut down Remain in Mexico. If you think the border is "closed" now, just wait.

Biden could explain to the nation why it is in our interest to admit as many asylum-seekers as possible, even if a rise in illegal entries and in cross-border human and drug trafficking is the consequence. Or he could admit that his policies are responsible for a humanitarian disaster and withdraw his earlier executive orders. Or he could use whatever political capital he has left to pass an immigration reform bill that combines legal pathways to entry with workplace enforcement. But he won't do anything. Why? Because he is either satisfied with the situation or simply overwhelmed by it. Neither option is reassuring. And the problem grows worse.

Where Biden is most engaged is Ukraine. He warned against the invasion, rallied NATO against Russia, encouraged Sweden and Finland to join the Western alliance, and committed America to supply Ukraine with aid and weapons. "The generic point is that we're supplying them with the capacity—and the overwhelming courage they've demonstrated—that, in fact, they can continue to resist the Russian aggression," Biden told reporters Thursday. "And so, I don't know what—how it's going to end, but it will not end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine in Ukraine."

Shouldn't the leader of the Free World have some idea of how this brutal conflict might end? The war has taken a horrible human toll. Its effects on energy and food markets have been devastating. The goal should be to end the war.

How? Not by giving Putin what he wants. By giving Ukraine what it needs to push Russia back to the pre-war line of control. A Russia on defense is more likely to sue for peace.

Biden makes this prospect more difficult by limiting the systems we provide to Ukraine, by dribbling them out over time, and by insisting that we won't provide Ukraine with weapons that could strike targets inside Russia. From the start of the war, Biden has been more interested in signaling to Russia what he won't do than in causing Putin to fear what he might do. His self-constraint extends the fighting rather than shortens it and provides Russia the space for its slow roll through eastern and southern Ukraine. The war has become another disaster that Biden allows to play out in the background, in between bike rides and scoops of ice cream from Starkey's.

American aid to Ukraine is just and necessary. Since 1947, the policy of the United States has been to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." But Biden won't be able to sustain the domestic support for American involvement in a years-long war of attrition. He needs to match his actions with his words and drop his inhibitions on the aid we provide the Ukrainians. And he could do so while launching a peace initiative, thereby restoring coercive diplomacy as a tool of American foreign policy.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Decisive leadership is not Joe Biden's calling card. And so, the crises continue to mount. And Americans are left with feelings of aimlessness and fear.