Suddenly, U.S. President Joe Biden has a mess of messes on his hands. Troubles with China. A rhetorical battle with Russia. A mass murder in Atlanta. Controversy over the Senate filibuster. Bruised feelings in Canada over unneighbourly stinginess with coronavirus vaccines. Thousands of hopeful immigrants in federal custody at the Mexican border. And a spring-break COVID-19 outbreak looming.
All honeymoons come to an end. This is a phenomenon that surprised Mr. Biden’s predecessor, although it shouldn’t have – after all, he married three times. But coming before the completion of his ninth week in office, Mr. Biden is discovering that the office he sought three times is not going to be an easy mantle despite the experience he brings to the table.
“Sooner rather than later, reality arrives,” said Roger B. Porter, who teaches a Harvard course on the presidency and is the only American with appointments from the past nine presidents. “Urgent problems are more intractable than anticipated. Relationships prove crucial and success requires flexibility, adaptability as well as a willingness and ability to find common ground. If President Biden is going to establish successful policies that will endure, he must use the skills he honed for decades in the Senate and as vice-president to build bridges.’'
John F. Kennedy’s honeymoon could have ended with the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba but didn’t because he forthrightly admitted that he made an error in ordering the botched operation; the result actually was his highest approval ratings of his presidency. Gerald Ford’s honeymoon ended with his pardon of former president Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter’s ended when he opposed 19 water projects favoured by powerful Capitol Hill figures. The modern record for brief honeymoons may be Bill Clinton’s, which lasted less than a week because of a controversy involving the illegal immigrants Zoe Baird, his nominee for attorney general, hired for home employment – a kerfuffle blamed in part on senator Biden, who knew about the situation but did not warn the administration.
The one thing new presidents are warned – and mostly ignore – is that the good feelings don’t last forever.
“In that job, you cannot be driven by short-term events,” said Andrew Card, who was chief of staff for George W. Bush, whose very presidency began in controversy growing out of the overtime election standoff with Al Gore. “There will be times of trouble and times of joy. It’s Ecclesiastes. You have to be nimble and adjust to that. And you can’t be comfortable in moments of celebration, because the ‘incoming’ missiles never stop and the unknown becomes known with great speed.”
Mr. Biden still has a 54-per-cent approval rating, according to the RealClearPolitics survey average, a rate Donald J. Trump did not reach in his entire term. The reason may be largely because, as conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg put it, “after four years of a Donald Trump presidency, a boring old guy in the Oval Office is very reassuring to a lot of people.”
Even so, the challenges he faces in the Oval Office are mounting.
Last week alone, for example, an Alaska meeting of Chinese and U.S. diplomats dissolved into an exchange of denunciations and rancour. Russia spoke of “irreversible deterioration of relations” with the United States and recalled its ambassador to Washington after Mr. Biden agreed with an assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “killer.” And an outburst of gun violence that killed eight people, six of them Asian women, in Atlanta rekindled a searing debate about America’s racial heritage and outlook.
At the same time, Mr. Biden waded into a controversy about the filibuster, a Senate provision designed to protect the rights of the minority that has been employed for, among other things, the preservation of racist prerogatives. He also faced questions about his reluctance to share with Canada seven million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines stored in Cincinnati; the administration finally agreed to ship 1.5 million doses across the northern border and 2.5 million to Mexico, where a dire migrant crisis is worsening.
All of this is a new burden on a new President, but his predecessors have faced worse.
The day after his 1861 inauguration, Abraham Lincoln received a dispatch from Major Robert Anderson warning him that provisions were running low in the federal installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which, along with six other states, had seceded from the Union. Less than five weeks later, Lincoln decided to resupply the garrison, a move that sparked the Civil War.
“Biden had a tough transition, but Lincoln didn’t even have one,” said Sarah Purcell, a historian at Iowa’s Grinnell College. “Biden should take heart – and warning.”
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