2 March 2023
Tough Ol’ Joe
by J.R. Thomas
You have to be very uninterested in the ways of American politics not to recall that Joe Biden is 80 years old, but it is perhaps easier to forget that he is of a generation that came to political awareness in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Those of us who are somewhat younger than Joe have as our heroes perhaps the naïve idealism of Jimmy Carter, or more likely the “springtime in America” sunny optimism and good natured humour of Ronald Reagan, but Joe’s hero is John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president, who came to office carrying the hopes and dreams of so many young Americans. John Kennedy never really had a chance to show what he might do in domestic matters thanks to those terrible events in Dallas, but where he did make a clear mark was in foreign affairs, setting an agenda that continued until the time of Barrack Obama.
What JFK most hoped for was that the liberal revolution he intended to unlock in the USA should also find its way across the globe. He wanted to see the end of communism and of autocratic and cruel regimes the world over; not by a soft and cuddly approach but by holding out the hand of friendship whilst wielding, if required, the proverbial big stick with the other. His great test was the Cuba Missile Crisis of autumn 1962; the world seemed for a few days a very dangerous place indeed as USSR First Secretary Khrushchev and President Kennedy went toe to toe, nose to nose over the Russian missiles on Cuba. Kennedy did not blink; Khrushchev did. The USA was henceforward and indubitably the most powerful nation on earth.
Joe Biden has not forgotten that. There are times that he seems uninterested, confused, in the complex domestic matters that his administration has to cope with, not even really grasping what some of his policies are; indeed it is clear that on some issues he is the prisoner of the wilder fringes of the Democrat Party. But when it comes to foreign policy there is no question who is in charge. Joe is running the show, and he is loving it; he has a clear strategy, his mark is “tough but fair” and the area that bores so many American politicians – and indeed many American electors – is the President’s true love. His whole attitude is different when he looks at global politics. No more the slightly dazed stumbling figure of the domestically focussed press conference, but the strong leader, clear statements, facing down Putin and standing resolutely with the USA’s friends.
None has he stood with, and indeed beside, more determinedly than Ukraine. Last week he literally stood by President Zelenskyy in the heart of Kyiv. He was not there for long; just over four hours, but the two stood walked side by side in the open air even when the air raid sirens sounded, Mr Biden wearing his famous Aviator sun glasses (think Tom Cruise in Top Gun). For an American president to visit the heart of a country engaged in full scale war without any US troops on the ground is remarkable. It was very brave act indeed, made a great backdrop to the President’s announcement of an immediate further US$500million in military aid, and sent a very clear message to Moscow, to the Ukrainian people, and to Ukraine’s pathetically twitchy European neighbours.
The message though to the American people is not quite so clear; though heartland America’s sympathy is strongly with Ukraine and admiration for Mr Zelenskyy is strong, there would be no appetite for sending American troops into the battle zone, and not that great an enthusiasm for much more expenditure in support of the Ukraine military defence. The Democrat Party machine is perhaps even more lukewarm about entanglements in foreign fisticuffs. So are the Republicans also divided on the issue, with some wanting a resounding Ukrainian victory and the delivery of a bloody nose to Mr Putin, whilst others fear ever increasing US government expenditure, getting dragged into a fight on the ground or in the air, and the outbreak of nuclear conflict.
Mr Biden though is the clever politician in matters such as this; at a time when the Democrats are moving towards his nomination (or not) for the presidential race in 2024 the President is looking masterful, strong, a natural, brave, and determined leader who knows who his country’s friends are and supports them. (Whilst maybe also making sure that the USA will be the first port of call for Ukraine if and when the hoped for process of reconstruction begins.) The American people can see doddery old Joe suddenly transformed into Super-President, the Top Gun of the world. (The President suddenly also looks rather impressive against Mr Trump, knocking a golf ball about at Mar-A-Lago and sneering at Nikki Haley.)
The Republicans had not reckoned on this. Neither had the average scribbler, let your correspondent so confess. Never mind that Joe stumbled up the steps of Air Force One as he boarded at Warsaw for the return flight to Washington. Hell, the man had flown to Warsaw, taken a train to Kyiv, done a walk-about in Kyiv, train back to Warsaw, transfer to the airport, and then had to climb a full set of steps from the tarmac to the door of the presidential 747. What’s more, he was running – running – up the steps when he tripped; he instantly righted himself without help, and ran the rest of the climb. Men half his age would have required to be carried into the plane after that day trip. Good on you Mr President.
A week, said Harold Wilson, is a long time in politics. So it is; what effect this bold initiative will have on the President’s nomination chances and his opinion poll ratings is hard to say but it must surely help with the former and it cannot do any harm with the latter. In Ukraine Joe Biden will be added to the pantheon of heroes (alongside Boris Johnston). But, to requote H Wilson, a week is a long time in politics – and it is eighty-seven weeks to polling day.