Robbins: Like Truman, Biden smart but uncool

On Dec. 26, 1972, hours after Harry Truman’s death, Senator-elect Joseph Biden sent Truman’s widow a condolence telegram. The 33rd American president, Biden wrote, had proved a historic leader, one who had “made his mark” for being “purposeful, smart and tough.”

Truman had been bitterly attacked by Democrats and Republicans alike, belittled for his charisma-deficit and dull persona. Before the word “cool” entered our lexicon, Truman was uncool personified. Yet historians regularly rate Truman as among our finest presidents. C-SPAN’s surveys of  presidential historians consistently rank him as either our fifth or sixth greatest leader.

A half century after Truman’s passing, with a record of achievement that by rights should earn him considerable credit, Joe Biden is sold short in the same way Truman was. The biggest knocks on Biden are that he is 81, has an arthritic spine and as a child had a stutter. In a Tik-Tok world, his crime appears to be that he is all substance and no flash – all cattle, to reverse the old saying, and no hat. But just as he has skillfully led America out of COVID and revitalized an economy that under his predecessor had bordered on implosion, Biden’s management of multiple simultaneous global crises is evidence that the words he used to describe Truman – “purposeful, smart and tough” – can be said about him – and will be.

Thrust suddenly into a presidency for which he seemed ill-equipped, Truman implemented a strategy for containing the Soviet Union’s threat to the West, furnishing crucial military, economic and political reinforcement to democracies that were profoundly at risk. To do so, Truman was required to fend off criticism from every direction, including from Democrats.

Biden was anything but ill-equipped to become president, but he has navigated challenges no less daunting than those faced by Truman. These have included deep, bitter divisions at home, the rise of dangerous domestic anti-democracy forces, an economy placed on the brink by COVID and a trans-Atlantic alliance severely weakened by his predecessor. He nevertheless forged an international coalition that has enabled Ukraine to repel Russia’s initial invasion and hold Putin’s armies at bay.

Biden has been similarly skillful in the wake of the Oct. 7 mass slaughter of Israelis by Hamas, a genocidal ISIS clone funded by Iran. In standing up for Israel he has had to stand up to Arab governments which, while privately hoping for Israel to eradicate Hamas once and for all, are obliged by a jihadist Arab street to blame Israel for a war it did not start. He also has had to stand up to the Democrats’ left wing, which has its share of wing nuts, and to do so at a time when young voters who don’t know the Gaza Strip from the Louisiana Purchase are telling pollsters that Biden’s stand against mass slaughterers will actually cost him their support. This is the sort of Alice-in-Wonderland-itis with which the president has to cope.

The West is frankly fortunate that Joe Biden is president now and not Barack Obama. Certain that a policy of deterring malign state and non-state actors was the domain of “neo-conservatives” and just passé, Obama projected American weakness, encouraging those actors to conclude that they could engage in aggression without consequences.

In 2013, after declaring that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that Syria dare not cross, Obama retreated when Syria crossed it.

In 2014, when Vladimir Putin invaded and occupied Crimea, Obama looked the other way, letting it stand.

In 2015, determined, and seemingly desperate, to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran that handed Tehran over $100 billion with which to fund Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis and repress Iranian democracy movements, Obama mocked those who argued we would live to regret it.

We have now lived to regret it. And it is Biden who has had to deal with it all, including Iranian support for Putin’s war on Ukraine. In a season of counting blessings, one of them is that there is someone in the Oval Office who may be uncool, but knows what he’s doing.

Jeff Robbins is a Boston lawyer and former U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.



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