We remember presidents by adjectives. Wilson was professorial, Kennedy debonair, Reagan grandfatherly, Clinton slick, and Trump, well, unique.
As for our forty-fifth, there’s a reason why media takes on President Joe Biden’s unconscionable Afghanistan pullout keeps using one word to describe him. On that issue and many others, he assuredly is weak.
Set aside the fact that Biden left an unknown number of Americans behind, gave away Bagram Air Base, and donated billions of dollars’ worth of matériel to the Taliban. He’ll be forever associated with a war that, as H.R. McMaster puts it, “ended in self-defeat.”
Elsewhere, Biden fares little better. He seems to think indoctrinating the military in critical race theory and keeping its budget flat are how we deter and defeat China. His undermining of the integrity of the southern border has caused rates of migrant encounters not seen in two decades. Our country is awash with crime while Biden is more invested in taking guns away from law-abiding citizens than in punishing lawbreakers. Forgive the American people for concluding that he can’t keep us safe abroad, at the border, or on the streets.
It didn’t have to be this way. Biden could have learned from past presidents who exuded a strength that the country could get behind. Despite immense pressure to do otherwise, Truman took on the Soviet Union and crafted the security architecture that would help bring about its demise decades later. Bush 41 rallied the country and an international coalition to oust the rogue despot Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Even Obama, whose policies often left much to be desired, did not lack the cool confidence needed to be elected twice by impressive margins.
Sadly Biden isn’t up to the job. Not only because he is consistently mistaken on important foreign policy issues—as Bob Gates has famously noted—as well as ones of domestic policy. He also reassures those he should scare and scares those he should reassure.
The jihadis emboldened by American withdrawal from Afghanistan are one thing. The Chinese and Russian thugs bent on further aggression are another altogether. Do they fear that Biden will use force to repel land grabs in Asia or Europe? Is the U.S. deterrent still credible with a doddering near-octogenarian in the White House whose cognitive decline is there for all to see?
Not all past presidents of a certain age came across as such. The Gipper, though far from a young man, never let America’s enemies forget that there would be hell to pay for messing with Uncle Sam. Yet Biden is no Ronald Reagan. He is also no Franklin D. Roosevelt, who inspired our nation to vanquish Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany despite being confined to a wheelchair for much of his adult life. A sorry sequel to FDR’s venerable fireside chats, Biden’s speeches are unlikely to inspire much except confusion.
Ever since Thucydides, students of statecraft have seen that weakness begets belligerence. The surest deterrent to attack is making your foe fear you. Biden and company should learn this elemental truth and start projecting an image of strength.
Like many others, I’m rooting for Biden to succeed. But it’s not easy to get behind a weak man. When future historians write the record of his presidency, they’ll be hard-pressed to avoid the w-word.
Daniel J. Samet is a Graduate Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security.