There are a handful of elements of White House life that all presidents like: The presidential suite on Air Force One; weekends at Camp David; intersection control for their motorcades during heavy city traffic; the four ruffles on drums and the four flourishes on bugles that are sounded before the playing of Hail to the Chief.
And there is one element of the presidency that every occupant of the White House – from John Adams in 1800 to Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 all the way to Donald Trump in 2017 and Joe Biden in 2021 – absolutely hate: Being surprised.
“Presidents don’t like surprises,” the veteran Washington hand Kenneth M. Duberstein, chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, said in a recent interview. “It’s the job of the intelligence people and the staff to make sure the president never is caught off guard. But still, surprises happen – and the job is to deal with the unanticipated.”
Such was the situation earlier this month, when Mr. Biden was surprised that the prospect of six Palestinian families being removed from their East Jerusalem homes would prompt an explosion of fighting, with aerial attacks bombarding Gaza and rockets targeting Israel.
The 11 days of fighting that were ended by a fragile ceasefire taught Mr. Biden – a Washington veteran with six terms in the Senate, six years as chairman of the powerful foreign relations committee, and eight years as a globetrotting vice-president who travelled to 57 countries – a valuable lesson: The president does not set the presidential agenda.
If the portraits on the White House walls could talk, they would have provided Mr. Biden with sober perspective on how quickly serenity can be replaced with calamity.
Thomas Jefferson would have told him that a domestic agenda – he wanted to limit the reach of government – can be upended by events as obscure as the crimes of Barbary pirates and the impressment of American mariners onto British ships. Woodrow Wilson would have reminded him that he told a friend shortly before his inauguration that it “would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs” – an irony that became reality when he led the country into the First World War four years later. Richard Nixon could have warned him that the activities of operatives working for his re-election would create a scandal that would overshadow his openings to China and the Soviet Union and propel him from office in disgrace. Jimmy Carter could have told him that his drive to make American foreign policy dictated by human rights would be derailed by a group of angry students in Tehran who seized American diplomats as hostages. George H.W. Bush could have told him that his presidency would be hijacked by an Iraqi invasion in faraway Kuwait.
Surprises all – and it was the surprises that defined these presidencies.
“The things that surprise a president are always more difficult to deal with than the problems or goals they thought would dominate their terms, " said Roger Porter, who teaches a course on the presidency at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and currently serves as the university’s IBM Professor of Business and Government.
A classic example is Harry Truman, who in his 1949 State of the Union Address set forth an ambitious program focused on education, full employment, housing and health care. Then 75,000 North Korean combatants rampaged across the 38th parallel that served as the northern border of South Korea.
In their early days, American presidents speak as if they are visionaries, but what they really need is peripheral vision. Mr. Biden provides yet another case study in the ophthalmology of politics.
Th 46th President surveyed the geopolitical landscape and thought he saw what his overseas priority should be – containing a surging China in military and economic affairs, confronting an angry Russia intent on undermining American democracy at home and American interests abroad. But Mr. Biden was working from a position of weakness when both Israel and Hamas were determined to show their strength on the ground.
“Did he want this to be front-and-centre on his agenda? No,” said Linda Robinson, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the non-partisan think tank RAND Corporation. “The question now is how much of his presidency will this consume? He and his administration cannot pivot away from the region, because it is critical for them to make it at least a second-tier priority. Nothing good will come from ignoring it.”
Recent American presidents have been wary of comparisons with, or lessons learned from, Woodrow Wilson. But his comment that it would be an “irony of fate” if the country’s only president possessing a PhD – his was in domestic American politics – would be preoccupied by global events offers a lesson for Mr. Biden.
“No one was prepared for the storm that burst upon the world that summer,” distinguished University of Wisconsin historian John Milton Cooper Jr., wrote of 1914, when the First World War began, in the journal Diplomatic History, “but the United States had a firm hand at the helm and a course clearly set.”
That article was published in the fall 1979 edition of the journal, just before Mr. Carter confronted the Iran hostage crisis. The United States did not have a particularly firm hand at the helm then. The question America and the world are asking is how firm is Mr. Biden’s hand – and why he was surprised by the outbreak of violence in a region where, since 1947, violence has never been surprising.
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