Global Crises Could Win Biden Back the White House

1 month ago

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Roughly a year before the 2004 campaign hit its frenzied stride, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich huddled in a private room at a French restaurant just a few blocks from the White House. There, one of the Republican Party’s sharpest tacticians spent more than two hours sparring with professional neocon hawk Paul Wolfowitz about the plan going forward in Iraq, strategy in the region for curbing extremism, and its interplay with the looming Bush-Cheney re-election bid. All the while, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s longtime adviser Steve Herbits kept chiming in with a prompt no one disagreed with: “This President is going to get creamed if you don’t change this.”

Gingrich understood the stakes and went to the White House with a strategy memo to turn around the devolving political situation in Iraq. Across from Karl Rove, the strategist often referred to as “Bush’s Brain,” Gingrich had a direct message for his fellow Republicans, one that barely needed to be articulated: “Losing a war is bad.”

But there was a corollary to that: Winning one is much, much better.

Put plainly, it’s really tough to defeat a wartime President. The last 72 hours in Washington after Iran launched failed drones and missiles at Israel and triggered global condemnation have served as a stark reminder that there is no pulpit from which more power flows to all corners of the globe than the American presidency. Wielding a national security apparatus that overtakes all other issues—foreign powers, global markets, even domestic polling—is part of the U.S. might, and it gives the incumbent resident of the White House unrivaled advantages, especially heading into an election cycle.

History supports this. Despite the Bush 43 team not fully heeding Gingrich’s dire warning—all of which is recounted in Bob Woodward’s third volume about the Bush years, State of Denial—Vietnam veteran John Kerry couldn’t beat him in 2004. Despite a disaster in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, then-former Massachusetts Governor and future-Utah Senator Mitt Romney couldn’t get it done against Barack Obama with troop levels in Afghanistan tripled and Osama bin Laden dead. Ronald Reagan, who was laying the groundwork for the end of both the Soviet Union and the Cold War, won 49 states during his re-election bid in 1984 against former Vice President Walter Mondale. Four years later, with Vice President George H.W. Bush running essentially for a third term of Reagan and the one-time Evil Empire collapsing under its own weight, Americans served up the last landslide election with the defeat of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. (Bush 41, it has to be said, did break the wartime rule when he lost in 1992 despite the overwhelming defeat of Iraqi forces in the Gulf War I.)

So while polling shows President Joe Biden in a tricky position of consistent net-negative approval ratings and a neck-and-neck—but narrowing—fight against former President Donald Trump, Biden has a crucial advantage until at least Jan. 20, 2025. Only one of the candidates has the nuclear launch codes. Only one of them has the institutional gravitas to summon world leaders to the phone to consult on the fast-breaking developments. Only one can launch a coordinated response from global alliances. And, baked into this formula, only one can use the White House’s massive national security shadow to assert American dominance that gives even the most skittish or sour voters some measure of comfort amid global chaos.

The increasing global tensions over the weekend may turn out to be a pivot point in the election. Iran responded to the killing of senior paramilitary leaders by launching 300 drones and missiles toward Israel late Saturday; with U.S. assistance, the vast majority of those fell from the sky as shrapnel. In Russia, oil refineries have been targeted by Ukraine in an effort to push Russian troops back onto their own land—moves that have complicated the White House’s pitch to lawmakers on a long-delayed $60 billion Ukraine aid package. And the recent visits to Washington from the leaders of Japan and the Philippines have revived Biden’s worries about Chinese aggression in the region, prompting the State Department to send a delegation to Beijing over the weekend to head off anxiety about a potential escalation regarding Taiwan.

Biden’s team contemplated a national address on the Middle East but ultimately kept that asset in reserve, concluding it would not be helpful at a moment when Washington and allies in the region have been pushing Hamas and Israel to reach a deal to release hostages now held for more than six months. Instead, Biden commented on the region on Monday during photo-op before a meeting in the Oval Office with the Iraqi Prime Minister. The White House knows they don’t have to play their cards right away, especially on a high-wattage national address. 

They might not want to hold them for too long, though. The warning signs for Team Biden are real and many. His campaign organization has been slow to come together, although aides are freshly bullish that they’re closing in on a winning package of aides, strategies, ads, and travel. Trump remains a unique political figure; lost on no one is the fact that jurors on Monday were starting to get in place for Trump’s criminal hush-money trial in New York. Still, the polling suggests Americans aren’t sure which of their two options is more appealing—or, perhaps, less discouraging—and Biden’s deep unpopularity of more than 16 points net negativity is worrisome for Democrats. To put that unpopularity into perspective, the last three incumbents to lose re-election all were polling better at this point in their presidencies than Biden is today.

But with the skies over the West Bank and Israel ablaze with Iranian rockets and drones, a war slogging on in Ukraine, and tensions between Taiwan and mainland China renewed, Biden has a chance to position himself as a wartime President even without U.S. troops officially engaged. Policy and political observers alike are watching Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing for clues about what the real contours of U.S. decision-making will be, both in the Situation Room and at the ballot box. Foreign affairs seldom matter in presidential elections unless things are going very, very badly.

Which is why Gingrich was dead right when he marched into his warning to Rove with the most basic message that can be summarized as: Strong, good; weak, bad. It’s not terribly sophisticated, but it’s worth remembering that nothing is as strong as the image of a U.S. President taking the lead on the world stage. Americans tend to like that vision of power, and we all know they also tend to vote on feeling more than any objective marker. Any contender for the presidency—incumbent or challenger alike—would do well to learn that lesson.

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