Biden’s Political Skills Are Helping Him Get This Crisis Right


It’s early, but the Israel-Hamas war is already demonstrating what presidents can bring to foreign policy crises — and why Joe Biden is well equipped to deal with this one.

This is very much a situation in which good policy also makes for good politics, at least electorally. A relatively good outcome  to this war won’t help Biden much in November 2024 — foreign affairs rarely affects voters’ choices — but any number of other scenarios, especially if they were to involve US troop casualties or harm the US economy, could hurt. Anything else will likely be forgotten (certainly by swing voters, who typically pay less attention to the news than most) long before the election.

So if Biden cared mainly about next year’s presidential election, he would worry less about current public reaction and more about a non-disastrous outcome in the medium and long term. In this case, that means minimizing the possibility that the war will spread beyond Israel and Hamas.

The question is how to reach that outcome. Biden has numerous experts to help him, of course, with diplomacy and intelligence and military planning. But it’s not enough to rely on expertise. Not only do experts often disagree, but when they do agree it can be a sign of groupthink.

What presidents bring to the table mix isn’t policy expertise. It’s personal experience and political acumen.

Biden has some sense of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and personal connections with important players. That’s a lot better than absorbing a bunch of memos. (1)Meanwhile, he has long been skilled at planting himself in the middle of the Democratic Party without seeming to cater to all its various factions.

That leaves him well-positioned to know exactly where the danger spots are with each important constituency — Jewish and Muslim voters, for example, but also any other organized groups that have something at stake in a potential war. Biden is also good at knowing  what policy adjustments if any are needed to navigate past these danger spots, or if changes in rhetoric are sufficient. All these skills are valuable for addressing groups from outside the party as well.

Biden’s early response — giving very strong public support to Israel while more quietly attempting to restrain some of its instincts, and at the same time giving rhetorical comfort to US Jews and Muslims — illustrates how his approach works in practice.

Biden’s decades of experience in both the Senate and the executive branch also give him a practical knowledge about how the federal bureaucracy works. What does it mean, for instance, when some State Department civil servants express hesitations about the administration’s policy choices? Does it suggest that the process is missing something important? Or is it simply a manageable cost of that process? Which agencies and departments are likely take opposite sides on a given issue, and can those differences be reconciled? Or is better to just accept the disagreements and move on?

The point of all this is that Biden (or Donald Trump or Barack Obama or any other president) is probably not as good as the experts at seeing the policy danger points. But what presidents should be good at — and so far, Biden appears to be — is sensing which objections to their policy matter, and how to address them. Those objections can come from other governments, departments within their own government, or organized groups outside of government. The very process of navigating disagreement, in theory at least, helps presidents to make policy that avoids the worst outcomes.

That’s what George W. Bush failed to do when Defense Department personnel argued that postwar plans for Iraq were inadequate. And it’s what Bill Clinton failed to do when he proposed a health-care plan that drew strong objections from too many affected industries, including some that he needed as allies.

One of the virtues of the US system is supposed to be that anyone who reaches the presidency has the political skills needed to handle the tensions that will inevitably arise from both policy proposals and unexpected crises. As the war between Israel and Hamas proceeds, one of the things we will learn is how well Biden can deploy his talents.

Elsewhere in Bloomberg Opinion:

• Mr. Biden Goes to the Middle East: Andreas Kluth

• Biden Needs to Be Honest With Bibi: The Editors

• The Pax Americana Is Over: Hal Brands

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(1) There’s danger in that, too, because no president is an expert in everything, and one way they get into real trouble is when they decide they know more than anyone else about a topic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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