Biden’s bizarre presidency limps toward electoral shellacking

As Richard Adams, the author of the beloved children’s book Watership Down, put it: “Bunnies … are like human beings in many ways.” This quotation popped into my head last week during the latest bizarre episode in the increasingly bizarre presidency of Joe Biden.

Fulfilling the ceremonial side of his job —the president is both head of state (like the British queen) and head of government (like the prime minister) —Biden was called upon to officiate at the annual Easter egg roll, a tradition in which children push an egg along the White House lawn with a long-handled spoon. Festivities include appearances by the president and the first lady, staffers dressed up in Easter Bunny costumes, and exhibits of elaborately decorated eggs. This would seem to be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and certainly not any public relations danger. However, such a seemingly placid event failed to reckon with this administration’s painful and growing disarray.

For, as we have said here before, Biden has lost an intellectual step since the time I knew him during his frequent visits to Europe as both a senator and vice president. Stiff gaited, peering off into the horizon, and perpetually distracted, the president is a public relations disaster always waiting to happen. In this case, reporters started quizzing him about foreign policy, even as the president and the first lady were standing somewhat uncomfortably with a 6ft rabbit, supposedly a White House press aide, dancing next to them. While the rabbit and the children were raising their arms and dancing, Jill Biden whispered to the president to do the same. Bewildered, he followed her orders.

But even worse was to come. While officiating over the Easter egg roll, the president was asked questions about foreign policy by the White House press corps. Confused, he began to talk off the cuff about Afghanistan and Pakistan … only to be firmly led away by the rabbit, who may have forgotten what he was wearing but not his role as press aide — above all, do not let the president attempt to answer unscripted questions.

Writing this seems cruel, but it is surely not so. Rather, it confirms for many the fears that Biden is not up to the job. Worse, he wants to run for another term. The president, now 79, would be 82 at the time of his next inauguration should he win re-election. Nevertheless, acording to The Hill, the venerable newspaper of record for those around Congress, re-election is precisely what Biden is aiming at. They have gone on record with two sources saying the president told his former boss, Barack Obama, that he is indeed planning to run again in 2022, a prospect that sent shudders up the spine of much of the country.

The Real Clear Politics average of polling finds the president with a current job approval rating of only 41 percent, while a majority 52 percent disapprove of his performance. Given that the president’s job performance is the most reliable indicator to the outcome of the mid-term elections in November, the result looks set to be somewhere between a decisive defeat for the Democrats and an outright political tsunami.

Historically, first term mid-terms are always a trial for the White House, as the voters tend to experience a severe case of buyers’ remorse. For example, the Clinton administration lost a net 54 House seats in 1994, while even more Democrats (63 in net terms) lost seats at the 2010 mid-terms during the Obama administration. Given the carved-out safe districts put in place for both parties since, there is no chance the absolute numbers will be as bad for the Biden White House this time around.

Saying this, I have yet to find a single political operative who privately thinks the Democrats will retain control of the House, while the Senate (to my eyes) also looks like it will end up with slim Republican control. Loss of both chambers of Congress would surely signal the definitive end of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda in early 2023.

Of the many issues working against him, dramatically rising inflation is the most important issue to most Americans, putting the administration behind the policy eight ball. Rising to a stratospheric 8.5 percent in March, inflation is at its highest level since faraway 1981. Nor do the White House’s feeble efforts to blame price rises on Vladimir Putin seem to be working; significant increases were already in the works before the Ukraine war, which began only in late February.

Rather, the simple, unvarnished truth is that, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the administration miscalculated how quickly the resilient US economy would bounce back — over-egging the economy with an additional, gargantuan 15 percent in federal spending, even as the economy quickly returned to normal. The math is simply the math. Vast new federal spending is to blame for raging inflation. Despite his recent familiarity with bunnies, Biden will not be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat here; his mid-term electoral shellacking awaits.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Scandal is a new danger to the Biden administration

The great Napoleon put it well when he said: “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” By this bracing yardstick, the adrift presidency of Joe Biden is dying every day.

Whether the issue is his failure to enact the whole of his ambitious domestic agenda, dangerous verbal gaffes over the Ukraine War, or loosing the beast of inflation on the unsuspecting American people, the White House is clearly on the policy defensive, a fact increasingly reflected in the president’s job approval numbers.

Despite Biden’s being shielded by an increasingly desperate American mainstream media, who serve as unbelieved apologists for the White House, the American people are not fooled in the least by what is going on; the Real Clear Politics average of polling puts the president’s approval rating at a lowly 41 percent, with 54 percent disapproving of his performance.

As this column has made clear, the best way to read US polling is to think of it as the temperature of the presidential patient. Denizens of Washington — from the lowliest legislative correspondent who answers the mail, to the Secretary of State — look at polls in the same way the rest of the country reads daily baseball scores: Avidly, voraciously, incessantly.

A Washington-insider rule of thumb is that if the president has an approval rating above 60 percent, so popular is he out in the country that he can largely tell Congress what to do, as was the case for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. However, when a president’s approval rating plummets to the sub-40 percent level, the White House has to spend its time trying to squelch rumors that he is dead, so peripheral is his stature. With Biden just above this perilous number, he is struggling to remain relevant.

Even worse for Biden, beyond the listing domestic agenda, verbal miscues over Ukraine, and the rise of rampant inflation, a new danger to the White House has emerged, a long dormant scandal involving his son, Hunter. The Hunter Biden saga, a story the mainstream press managed to bury during the 2020 campaign, has once again reared its ugly head with news that the president’s ne’er-do-well son is being investigated by a Delaware grand jury for his murky tax and international business dealings.

At best, Hunter Biden has made an unseemly career of merely living off being his famous father’s son. For example, despite not having the credentials in the energy sector to be even an intern, he sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, making several million dollars for seemingly doing nothing. One assumes the company hoped to cash in on Hunter’s father’s position, otherwise there seems no logical reason for him to be hired. Worse, Hunter also engaged in murky work in China — America’s emerging strategic competitor — even hitching a ride with his then vice president father to facilitate business dealings.

A grand jury has been convened to investigate all this, plus his highly possible non-payment of tax. However, the trouble does not stop with Hunter Biden. Leaks from the grand jury’s work appeared in the British newspaper The Times and other reputable sources, confirming what Hunter’s former business partner, Tony Bobulinksi, has repeatedly said: Joe Biden was deeply involved in Hunter’s dodgy business dealings. Particularly damning is one email revealed by Bobulinski that says: “10 held by H for the Big Guy,” a reference to the percentage equity distribution in a venture with a now-defunct Chinese energy company. It does not take a mind reader to glean that “H” may well be Hunter, or who “The Big Guy” is, an obvious supposition confirmed by Bobulinski, who has been voluntarily cooperating with the FBI.

But far worse for the president is that during the campaign he made a number of barely-believable statements, at the time (incredibly) not followed up by the suspiciously incurious mainstream American media. When asked what, if anything, he knew of his son’s business practices, candidate Biden said that they had never spoken of them. I remember at the time yelling at my TV: “Never? Not at Christmas? Thanksgiving? Not when the kids get together? You never asked your son how his business was going or what he was doing in all these far-flung places?” This may have been my knee-jerk, logical reaction to such a likely misstatement, but again, incredibly, Biden was not called out on it. That is, until now.

Forced by the reality of the grand jury and a mountain of unseemly facts, the two great leftist American papers of record, The Washington Post and The New York Times, rather than calling the Hunter Biden story into disrepute as unfounded, have at last grudgingly admitted that it needs to be followed up — more than a year after the New York Post first ran the allegations. Conveniently for the Biden political team at the time, a scandal that might have affected the outcome of the 2020 election was buried. Inconveniently for them, like a vampire, it has risen from the grave, despite the best efforts of an in-the-tank American mainstream media. Look for this story to run and run, dogging the beleaguered Biden administration for years to come.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Biden’s political comeback much less than meets the eye

Washington insiders read polls like the rest of the country looks at baseball scores: Relentlessly, daily, obsessively. A politician’s “numbers” are akin to understanding his political health. A basic rule of thumb is that any president with an approval rating over 60 percent can tell Congress what to do and be pretty sure to get what he wants, so great is his sway with the public. On the other hand, a president with a rating below 40 percent must spend his time trying to squelch rumors that he is dead.

So, on its surface, it is notable that President Joe Biden’s recent numbers tell of his survival from a near-death political experience. Following months of intraparty Democratic bickering, the White House’s signature “Build Back Better” initiative — a multitrillion-dollar bill stuffed with progressive wish-list items like universal preschool and free community college — fell victim to both Senate moderates (such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) and the alarming resurrection of inflation. In the wake of this ignominious defeat, Biden had only a 40 percent approval rating in RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of presidential polls. The president found himself on the cliff-edge of continuing relevance.

Recently, however, things have begun to look up politically for the White House, as Biden’s numbers have slowly but clearly edged upward to about 43 percent approval; far from great, but trending away from the writing off of his presidency. Two seminal factors explain the marginal improvement: The abatement of COVID-19 and the advent of the Ukraine war.

In the case of the first, after two grim years of lockdown, death and economic stultification, at last things seem to be returning to something approaching normal, with the children back in school (if still too often masked, in defiance of “the science”), parents back at work and commerce picking up. The fourth quarter of 2021 saw US gross domestic product increase 0.5 percent, 1.7 percent quarter-on-quarter, and the American economy enjoy its best year as a whole since 1984, growing at a robust 5.7 percent. While these impressive numbers are contextually a reaction to the deep dive the US economy took just before as a result of the pandemic, they do signal a very welcome return to economic normality.

At the same time, the Biden of old has reemerged as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Measured, moderate and clear-spoken, the president has made it obvious that, while he supports the hard-pressed Zelensky government in Kyiv, he is sensibly not prepared to risk widening the conflict by adopting a dangerous no-fly zone over Ukraine. Following his lead, and despite Volodymyr Zelensky’s impassioned pleas, NATO has unanimously followed suit.

Biden’s pro-Ukrainian tilt, then, has its limits. While genuine, it is secondary for the president to containing a possible escalation of the war. Beyond being strategically reasonable, Biden’s position is where most Americans are regarding the conflict. The war has reminded US voters of the “safe pair of hands” they thought they were electing in the first place, before the Biden White House came to be hijacked by the left wing of the Democratic Party.

But it is far too early for White House staffers to be quaffing champagne regarding Biden’s political comeback, as a number of overexcitable commentators have done. For one thing, a three-point “bounce,” while better than a drop, hardly amounts to a sea change in how the American public views the president. A March 15 Wall Street Journal poll confirms this. Only 29 percent of US voters think the president will run for reelection, with a dominant 52 percent believing Biden will call it quits after only one term in office.

If Biden were to run and win again, he would be 82 at the time of his second inauguration, by far the oldest man to have held the most demanding job in the world. Given his increasingly stiff gait, often rambling answers to questions and abject forgetfulness, it is unkind but true to note the president has lost a step over the past few years. The world seems dangerous, complicated and demanding. A large majority of the American people do not think Biden is up to a second term.

Beyond the personal, one issue above all has reared its ugly head, stifling the prospects for Biden’s comeback. As this column has long worried about, it is now increasingly clear that the beast of inflation — long cowed by the resolute actions of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and President Ronald Reagan — has slipped its restraints. Inflation increased to an eye-popping 7.9 percent year-on-year in February, the highest level in fully 40 years. Food, rent and fuel costs were dangerously climbing even before the Russian war has made an energy price shock a reality.

As the world looks increasingly like the dreary 1970s — stuck in a stagflation of low growth, high inflation and decreased living standards — Biden is sure to be blamed for this, just as Jimmy Carter was in 1980. Biden’s uptick in the polls is a blip, not a salvation. Instead, longer-range forces are bearing down on the White House, making it likely that, one way or the other, Biden is merely a one-term president.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Biden has only himself to blame for Gulf hesitancy

As I can attest to from my Washington days, the art of alliance management is a tedious, dreary process. Much as is true of personal friendships, alliances between countries require both parties to see but overlook the flaws in one another, all in the cause that, on balance, the link is worth it. Or, to put it in realist terms, the only thing worse than having allies is not having allies.

Further, both personal friendships and alliances require patient, endless tending; like gardening, it is an endless process. Bursts of energy and attention are not enough to sustain an alliance. What is necessary is a patient, long-standing effort to look at the common interests between countries, looking for where they can work together, while at the same time minimizing interest-based differences so that the alliance does not turn toxic, becoming endangered. Worst of all, alliances cannot be taken for granted; if they are, the neglect inherent in this mindset will come back to bite the neglectful country.

When Joe Biden came to the White House, the necessary, unglamorous art of alliance management was exactly the sort of thing he was supposed to be good at. A foreign policy veteran, as a legislator he had long served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the select group overseeing America’s international relations. Doing the hard, grown-up heavy lifting inherent in alliance management seemed to suit the new president’s temperament and, more, his biography.

So, it has come as a shock that Biden’s frenzied efforts to craft a new energy policy in the wake of US energy sanctions levied against Russia have run into a brick wall, with allies the UAE and Saudi Arabia apparently shunning his entreaties of the need to pump more oil in an effort to lessen the looming global supply shock that is a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Practically, these two countries can uniquely quickly ramp up production, making up for the Russian exclusion. That they have yet to do so speaks karmic volumes — not about the merits of Biden’s “ask,” but about his diplomatic neglect of these two traditional bastions of America’s global alliance system.

In 2021, the US imported nearly 700,000 barrels a day of crude oil and liquefied petroleum products from Russia, about 8 percent of its total oil imports. While it is far less dependent on Russian energy than its European allies, this not insignificant total is sure to send US energy prices higher in the short run. This is particularly devastating for the White House in that inflation is already an alarming 7.9 percent, the highest rate in 40 years.

Biden’s economic team made a fundamental error in throwing too much public sector money at the COVID-19 crisis, even as the US economy bounced back stronger and more quickly than expected. As former Clinton era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers made brilliantly clear, you cannot increase federal spending by 14 to 15 percent of gross domestic product without triggering seriously higher rates of inflation. All this was happening even before the global energy supply shock that is a consequence of the Ukraine war. This is the context that sent a complacent Biden off to ask Saudi Arabia and the UAE for immediate and dramatic help in increasing global energy production to cushion the US from this foreseeable blow.

That the two countries have not been immediately receptive is reportedly a consequence of having been taken for granted throughout the Biden presidency — his neglect of alliance management has come home to roost. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been alarmed at the Biden White House’s headlong rush to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran. Their concerns have fallen on largely deaf ears, as the US moves close to reviving this disastrous deal.

Second, both the Saudis and the Emiratis were angered by the withdrawal of the US’ terrorist designation status from the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, who are fighting government forces backed by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Further, the Saudis want more American support regarding the war as a whole. To put it mildly, this has not been forthcoming from the Biden White House, which seemingly cared as little about the core Saudi interest as it was passionate about the Iran deal.

Third, in trying to (somehow) sideline US relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Biden White House fundamentally misunderstands how the Saudi system works. In neglecting, ignoring and taking the Saudi and UAE alliances for granted, Biden is reaping what he sowed.

At last aware of the damage done, White House officials are scrambling to set up a visit by the president to Riyadh to try to calm the waters as he pushes for greater oil production. There are indications that the UAE is now open to such an increase. But, to put it mildly, it is a bad time to ask an estranged friend for help, after neglecting that very relationship in the first place. It is the price Biden pays for failing at alliance management.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Why Biden’s domestic agenda is already dead

The modern American presidency, like water, always runs along the path of least resistance. Once a president’s window to enact domestic legislation closes — as it invariably does at some point in his first term — he then shifts course, setting his sights on foreign policy. Constitutionally, this amounts to far more fertile ground, as America’s founding document gives the executive branch a great deal more power to conduct foreign policy than it does domestic policy.

Historically, this process has happened even to presidents with significant domestic achievements to their name. For all the brilliant overall luster of his presidency, it was during Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office that the lion’s share of the “New Deal” programs to combat the Great Depression were enacted. Likewise, following his landslide victory in 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s seismic civil rights legislation (and the formulation of his “Great Society” domestic programs) came early on in his term. The same holds true on the right. Ronald Reagan’s landmark tax cuts came shortly after his victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, but before the midterms of 1982. More recently, Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, “Obamacare,” came about after his famous electoral win in 2008 and was the first and last major piece of domestic legislation he got over the line.

So, in this larger historical sense, what is presently happening to Joe Biden comfortably fits into the overall historical narrative of the modern American presidency. Presidents achieve their domestic legislative successes early and then — once that political avenue has been halted — like water, move along the path of least resistance to focus on foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the speed of Biden’s domestic legislative decline is as striking as it is unusual.

Following his electoral victory in 2020, Biden rode a year-long wave of domestic political success, enacting both the trillion-dollar COVID-19 emergency legislation and his bipartisan infrastructure plans. However, the even more expensive progressive wish-list bill, the Build Back Better plan, fell afoul of two immovable objects: Ideological tensions within the Democratic Party and a dramatic change in circumstances due to the stratospheric rise in inflation.

Since the Democrats swept to power in both houses of Congress and the White House in 2020, there has been an endemic structural tension between Biden’s maximalist domestic agenda (as he adopted much of the progressive left of the party’s desire for dangerously high rates of spending) and his scant majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The upper chamber, split in half at 50-50 (with Vice President Kamala Harris there to break ties), left Biden entirely at the mercy of any single Democratic senator who was uncomfortable with the political direction the White House was moving in. As Biden tacked ever to the left, moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (and, to a significant but lesser extent, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) balked at the cost as well as the scope of Biden’s domestic agenda.

Late last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office made plain that, shorn of its accounting trickeries, the actual 10-year cost of the BBB plan would amount to $5 trillion, much higher than had been advertised. It was then that Manchin openly revolted, adamantly refusing to go along with such excessive spending.

Politically, Manchin has ample cover for his revolt. He is the last significant Democratic office holder in a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 by the overwhelming margin of 38.9 points, in what amounted to Trump’s second-strongest showing in the nation. In leading the charge against the leftist Democrats’ wish-list bill, Manchin was merely doing what his constituents unabashedly wanted him to do. Biden’s great error was in politically forgetting that, while the Democrats won slender majorities in Congress in 2020, the progressive wing of the party did not.

Beyond the politics, the incontestable fact that made Manchin’s opposition to BBB so successful was that, after an absence of 40 years, the beast of inflation has again been loosed on the American public. According to former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers’ sagacious analysis, worried about the effects that COVID-19 lockdowns might have on the economy, both the Trump and Biden presidencies primed the pumps, putting a further 14 to 15 percent of federal spending into the economy. Due to the fact that the US economy bounced back far more robustly and more quickly than had been thought, we have a situation wherein this vast amount of new federal spending has been visited upon an economy already roughly back to pre-pandemic levels.

Disastrously, the math being the math, rampant inflation can be the only result. True to form, in January, inflation increased to its highest level in 40 years — an alarming 7.5 percent year on year. Huge increases in the cost of food, electricity and shelter led the way. In such dramatic circumstances, Manchin’s protest against BBB merely looked sane, as the last thing the American economy needs is the gas of further spending poured onto the roaring fire of inflation.

For all these reasons — historical, political and economic — it is safe to say that Biden’s domestic agenda is well and truly over.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

A realistic approach may help master the crisis in Ukraine

At present, the only great power combination that can really threaten America’s global position in our new age is an ironclad alliance between revisionist powers China and Russia. And, for all their shared antipathy to the U.S., and for all that they strategically tilt toward one another, Beijing and Moscow are not there yet.

Russian resentment at taking a back seat to China does not fit comfortably with President Vladimir Putin’s Great Russian nationalism. On the other hand, China’s desire to economically — and eventually, militarily — challenge Russia for dominance in Central Asia does not make the two easy bedfellows. At the highest level, all American foreign policy must be about not throwing its two rivals into each other’s arms.

Of the two, China — the only possible peer superpower competitor — is the greater threat. Given that Russia is an uneasy part of Western civilization, it also makes it a better long-term option to pry away from the dangerous, putative Sino-Russian alliance. Even the outspoken Russia critic, former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell, recently said that “it is too bad we cannot have closer relations with Russia, because it could be a strategic partner with us against China.” This is why it is overwhelmingly in America’s interests, if it can be managed, to avoid open conflict with Russia over the Ukraine crisis.  

But how does this long-term geostrategic reality mesh with the immediate crisis in Ukraine? To be clear, the harsh, recent U.S.-Russia negotiations had an old, Cold War vibe. However, there are important differences between now and then. The current conflicts with the Kremlin are about Russia’s real or imagined security phobias and idiosyncrasies, not a fight over competing global ideologies. This is a new great power struggle, but not an ideological battle. As such, theoretically, the chasm between the two could be bridged.

Second, present weaknesses in the Western alliance are only spurring on Putin, even before Russia strikes. De facto neutralist Germany took unplugging the Kremlin from the global SWIFT banking system off the table, and the new governing coalition of Olaf Scholz is hedging on Germany’s earlier commitment not to allow the massive Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany to come online in the case of Russian invasion.

President Biden, in his news conference last week, suggested that a limited invasion might trigger only limited sanctions. Such weakness is no way to make fraught negotiations work. 

Instead, Washington and all the NATO allies must make it clear to Moscow that no effective “win-win” negotiations can be undertaken with the Russian military threat imminent. Any significant U.S. step toward Russia under current circumstances would be interpreted as just another sign of weakness by the Biden administration.

Instead, allowing that a cooling-off period can be managed, negotiations should be held with the clear intention to strengthen America’s geopolitical posture, while proposing to Russia a fair deal.

Some of Russia’s concerns can be acknowledged, in terms of verbal understandings, if not treaty obligations. George Friedman put it explicitly: “Russia has been invaded in the 17th century by the Swedes, in the 19th century by the French and in the 20th century twice by the Germans. In each case, they won the war or survived it by strategic depth.” 

Obviously, Ukraine is the number one priority for Russia, as far as a goal to reinstate some of the strategic depth lost with the fall of the USSR. They fear that another sudden outburst of aggression will — as it has done time and again — come from Europe, and they will have to defend themselves on frontlines dangerously close to Moscow. This is particularly relevant in our era of hypersonic missiles.

But the U.S. should make clear to the Kremlin that Russia’s neighbors also have an understandable historical dread of Russian aggression. Such trepidations may be alleviated by the further expansion of NATO to their territory, if they so wish, and when all other NATO members agree — which (crucially) so far, they do not. We must remind Putin that no NATO expansion to the East has happened since 2009 because of Germany’s and France’s fervent opposition, and that this is unlikely to change. While the U.S. cannot give in on the theory of further NATO expansion, reality can be directly conveyed to the Russian delegation. In practice, politically there is absolutely no appetite in the alliance for expansion to Russia’s borders, nor will it occur in the near term.

Leading European NATO powers (Germany, France and Italy) openly oppose further NATO expansion. This is not only because of the energy crisis and the German dependence on Russian gas but also because of their long-term interest in developing Russian markets and natural resources. The last thing any of these states wishes to do is to take a stick to the Russian beehive.

Putin’s preference, in time-honored Russian fashion, is to secure the country’s western borders. Negotiations on a renewed European security system could offer Russia enough strategically and tie Moscow’s hands for many years while the intricacies of a compact are developed, greatly reducing the dangerous incentive for it to form a military-political alliance with China.

The Russian proverb says that “a bad peace is better than a good war” — especially if the war can escalate in an age of nuclear weapons. Instead, a realistic approach could allow us time to find solutions acceptable to both sides, including agreements on limitations of strategic weapons deployment in Eastern Europe, military maneuvers, and offensive arms sales to Russian neighbors.

Quiet, realistic understandings, short of flashy treaties that are impossible to pass in the U.S. Congress, may be possible regarding NATO’s Eastern borderlands. Given the geostrategic stakes in play, thinking creatively is worth the effort.

This post was originally published in The Hill.

How the Biden presidency became a wreck

There is a famous quote widely attributed to 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire that urges us to always look on the bright side: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” However, with the Biden administration on Thursday passing its one-year mark in power, there is little cause for such good cheer. The Biden White House — despite real legislative accomplishments such as passage of the COVID-19 economic relief package and the bipartisan infrastructure bill — resembles nothing so much as a political shipwreck.

A year into his term, the RealClearPolitics poll of polls finds the president’s approval rating underwater, with a 42 percent job approval, as opposed to 52 percent who disapprove of Biden’s performance. The standard political rule of thumb in Washington is that if a president’s approval rating stands above a lofty 60 percent, he can simply tell Congress what to do, so great is his popularity. On the other hand, a subterranean rating below 40 percent finds the occupant of the White House trying to squelch rumors that he is dead, so inconsequential has his administration become. Viewed in this Washington insider context, the Biden White House finds itself on life support.

What explains Biden’s dramatic fall from political grace? Beyond the specifics of politics and policy, the president has failed in a more elemental way. At his inauguration, after all the storm and tumult of the Trump years, the new president promised to restore competence, steadiness, decency and a boring, bipartisan normality to governing and to a country exhausted by four years of riding the Donald Trump roller coaster. He has signally failed to achieve this.

Instead, despite a 50-50 tie in the Senate and the slenderest of majorities in the House, Biden — long known as a moderate — tacked to the progressive left, unveiling a series of domestic initiatives as ambitious in their efforts to expand the role of the state as anything since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. The difference, following the Democratic landslide in 1964, is that Johnson had overwhelming majorities to work with in both houses of Congress.

Perhaps the fatal flaw in Biden’s time in office so far is the disconnect between his highly ambitious (and highly ideological) domestic policy ambitions and the meager reality of his governing majority. With Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia effectively derailing the crown jewel of the Biden agenda — the mammoth Build Back Better progressive wish list bill — the White House has looked alarmingly leftist and legislatively maladroit. For a man elected to restore bipartisan competence and normality, this has been a political killer. With Build Back Better languishing in the Senate, the rest of Biden’s domestic agenda looks to be derailed for the next year, leading up to what looks to be a midterm shellacking in both houses of Congress.

Beyond these failures of policy, tone and ideology, the Biden team has besmirched its initial reputation for competence. The administration’s alarmist vaccine mandate — an odd and highly restrictive policy choice given that the omicron variant of COVID-19 seems to infect the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike — was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The rise from seemingly nowhere of the beast of endemic inflation — the December inflation rate reached an almost 40-year high of 7 percent year on year — was badly missed and then downplayed by the White House. This has emerged in recent polling as the country’s primary concern, a problem almost entirely of Biden’s own making, which alone (if unchecked) has the power to sink his presidency.

Finally, even in international affairs — supposedly the president’s strength, given that he was long the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the Biden administration has looked inept. While a majority of Americans were eager for the US to exit the endless war in Afghanistan, the panicky and amateurish manner in which the withdrawal was handled, as suicide bombers struck within Kabul airport itself, sickened all of America’s friends in the world, just as the debacle emboldened all of its foes.

For all the talk by the president that “America is back,” the grim reality finds Russia probing US weaknesses in Europe, with the transatlantic alliance still very much not on the same page regarding Moscow, the danger emanating from Iran or the rise of China as a peer superpower competitor. Once European allies got over the euphoria of no longer having to deal with Trump, relief quickly turned to concern as the Western ordering power of the world — mirroring the president’s increasing personal shakiness — seems unsteady, weak and flailing.

Ironically, the expected midterm drubbing in November — where the House seems certain to fall to the Republicans and with the Senate also very much in play — is probably the best political card Biden has left to play. This is because the rise of the GOP will undoubtedly tempt Trump back into the political fray. The most recent late December Reuters/Ipsos poll found Trump the favorite of a massive 54 percent of Republicans to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024, with only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (at 14 percent) also managing double-digit support. A rematch with America’s most polarizing figure in 2024 is Biden’s best chance for improbable salvation.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Biden’s misreading of his narrow mandate may be his biggest mistake

Part of the reason for my fascination with the classical Greek world is the beguiling notion that, if it can be understood, life itself can be understood. That is why I began my last book, “To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk,” looking at the story of the Pythia of Delphi, seeing the priestesses of Apollo as the first practitioners of the ancient and noble art of political risk analysis.

Carved deep in the dank cave where the Pythia made her predictions is an inscription that amounts to the Greek world’s ultimate contribution to philosophical thought: The Socratic admonition to “know thyself.” Just back from a week of grueling high-level meetings in Washington, where I met leading members of both parties for a series of candid discussions, I can say in all honesty that — if Socrates is the intellectual bar by which we are going to measure the world’s greatest power — it is failing, and doing so badly.

This is because both parties’ analytical observations stop with themselves. Obsessed with the all-too-real problems crippling their rivals, they seem unable and unwilling to come to grips with their own equally obvious political handicaps — problems that will surely consume one or both parties over the next three fateful years. However, the time frame of their political peril is different. For the Democrats, the problems are now; for the GOP, they are more in the medium term.

In terms of the 2022 midterms, the Republicans have always had history on their side. The party holding the presidency has lost House seats in 36 out of 39 midterm elections since the Civil War.

Beyond this historical record of “buyer’s remorse,” Republicans are in charge of the lion’s share of the statehouses and governorships that control the 10-year process of census redistricting of House seats, a new cycle that will be put into place in 2022. It is estimated it will give the GOP an extra 10 to 15-seat advantage going into the midterm campaign. As the Democrats presently only control the lower chamber by four seats, it was always likely that the GOP would regain control of the House in 2022.

What was not preordained was the possibility of a Republican landslide in the midterms. However, following on from Republican Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in the 2021 governor’s race in Democratic-leaning Virginia (a state Joe Biden won by a decisive 13 points over Donald Trump just a year ago), all the signs point to a significant Republican victory in the midterms, with the Democratic loss of the House seeming a foregone conclusion. The 50-50 Senate, meanwhile, seems to remain in play, even though 20 of the 34 seats up for election in the upper chamber are currently Republican-held.

What has gone so wrong for the Democrats? Gleeful Republicans forensically shared with me the symptoms of the Democratic Party’s disease. First, the Biden administration is not getting credit for its historically significant legislative achievements, while the ugly sausage-making manner of the law-enactment process seems to be counting as a mark against it. People have already factored in the popular $1.1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and his earlier $1 trillion-plus COVID-19 emergency bill. The Democrats’ negotiations with themselves have made for a publicly unedifying scene, as in this time of COVID-19 — a worldwide historical emergency — the Democrats have seemed petty and small, navel-gazing about themselves at the expense of the country.

At the same time, voters increasingly (correctly in my view) think the party has been worrying about every issue under the sun except inflation, the one issue that matters. A mid-October Fox News poll found that 53 percent of voters said they were extremely concerned about inflation; no other issue topped 50 percent.

With inflation soaring to 6.2 percent in the US last month and with the Democrats pouring fuel on an already raging fire, given their gigantic spending bills, an increasing majority of voters fault the ruling party for having loosed the beast of inflation, quelled now for 40 years by Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan. The Biden administration seems to have forgotten the basic political rule that, while unemployment is terrible for the minority of voters afflicted, high rates of inflation affect literally everyone, serving as a form of taxation on the living standards of the working poor and lower middle class. This has obvious and drastic political consequences.

Lastly, rather than repairing the breach in American political life, following on from the chaos and hyperpolitical partisanship of the Trump years, to many voters Biden has instead served as an empty vessel for the excesses of the out-of-control progressive left of the Democratic Party. The Biden White House seems to have forgotten it won the Democratic nomination in 2020 precisely because Biden was not a leftist, unlike Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Rather than wanting the new Biden team to embark on the most ambitious, leftist-leaning domestic agenda since Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s, voters wanted a moderate, decent Biden to inaugurate a period of peace and quiet. Biden’s misreading of his narrow mandate to instead enact gigantic social spending bills may be his greatest mistake of all.

This blog post was originally published in Arab News.