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Joe Biden Knows What It Actually Means to Be President

There’s a gathering sense that President Biden’s response to the war in Gaza may cost him the 2024 election. A recent Gallup poll showed that his support among Democrats has slipped 11 points in the past month to 75 percent, the lowest of his presidency. On Friday my colleagues in the newsroom reported on a growing backlash against Biden coming from young and left-leaning voters.

Does this mean that standing with Israel could be politically fatal for Biden? I don’t think so, and to understand why, it’s important to understand the core responsibilities of an American president.

In 2012, when I was a partisan supporter of Mitt Romney, there was one message from President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign that I thought made the most succinct and persuasive case for his second term. It was delivered most memorably by then-Vice President Biden, of all people, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He said that Obama had “courage in his soul, compassion in his heart and a spine of steel,” and then Biden delivered the key line: “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”

While I believed that Romney would do a better job as president than Obama, that sentence affected me so much — not just because it happened to be true but also because it resonated with two of a president’s most vital tasks: preserving prosperity at home and security abroad. A war-weary nation longed for a clear win, and a people still recovering from the Great Recession needed economic stability. The killing of bin Laden was the greatest victory of the war on terrorism, and the preservation of General Motors, an iconic American company, resonated as a national symbol as important as or more important than the number of jobs saved.

Now fast-forward to August 2024, when Biden will speak on his own behalf in Chicago at the next Democratic convention. Will he be able to tell the American people that he did his job? Will he be able to make that claim in the face of international crises more consequential than anything either Obama or Donald Trump faced during their presidencies?

Consider what he confronts: a brutal Russian assault on a liberal democracy in Europe, the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust and an aggressive China that is gaining military strength and threatens Taiwan. That’s two hot wars and a new cold war, each against a nation or entity that forsakes any meaningful moral norms, violates international law and commits crimes against humanity.

In each conflict abroad — hot or cold — America is indispensable to the defense of democracy and basic humanity. Ukraine cannot withstand a yearslong Russian onslaught unless the United States acts as the arsenal of democracy, keeping the Ukrainian military supplied with the weapons and munitions it needs. America is Israel’s indispensable ally and close military partner. It depends on our aid and — just as important — our good will for much of its strength and security. And Taiwan is a target of opportunity for China absent the might of the United States Pacific Fleet.

And keep in mind, Biden is managing these conflicts all while trying to make sure that the nation emerges from a pandemic with inflation in retreat and its economy intact. In spite of economic growth and low unemployment numbers that make the American economy the envy of the world, Americans are still dealing with the consequences of inflation and certainly don’t feel optimistic about our economic future.

Biden is now under fire from two sides, making these challenges even more difficult. The populist, Trumpist right threatens his ability to fund Ukraine, hoping to engineer a cutoff in aid that could well lead to the greatest victory for European autocrats since Hitler and then Stalin swallowed European democracies whole in their quest for power and control.

At the same time, progressives calling for a cease-fire in Gaza threaten to hand Hamas the greatest victory of its existence. If Hamas can wound Israel so deeply and yet live to fight again, it will have accomplished what ISIS could not — commit acts of the most brutal terror and then survive as an intact organization against a military that possesses the power to crush it outright. I agree with Dennis Ross, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East: Any outcome that leaves Hamas in control in Gaza “will doom not just Gaza but also much of the rest of the Middle East.”

And hovering, just outside the frame, is China, watching carefully and measuring our will.

I understand both the good-faith right-wing objections to Ukraine aid and the good-faith progressive calls for a cease-fire in Israel. Ukraine needs an extraordinary amount of American support for a war that has no end in sight. It’s much easier to rally the West when Ukraine is on the advance. It’s much harder to sustain American support in the face of grinding trench warfare, the kind of warfare that consumes men and material at a terrifying pace.

I also understand that it is hard to watch a large-scale bombing campaign in Gaza that kills civilians, no matter the precision of each individual strike. Much like ISIS in Mosul, Hamas has embedded itself in the civilian population. It is impossible to defeat Hamas without harming civilians, and each new civilian death is a profound tragedy, one that unfolds in front of a watching world. It’s a testament to our shared humanity that one of our first instincts when we see such violence is to say, “Please, just stop.”

This instinct is magnified when the combination of the fog of war and Hamas disinformation can cause exaggerated or even outright false claims of Israeli atrocities to race across the nation and the world before the full truth is known. The sheer scale of the Israeli response is difficult to grasp, and there is no way for decent people to see the death and destruction and not feel anguish for the plight of the innocent.

The combination of tragedy, confusion and cost is what makes leadership so difficult. A good leader can’t overreact to any given news cycle. He or she can’t overreact to any specific report from the battlefield. And a good leader certainly can’t overreact to a negative poll.

I’ve long thought that politicians’ moment-by-moment reaction to activists, to members of the media and to polls is partly responsible for the decline in trust in American politicians. What can feel responsive in the moment is evidence of instability in the aggregate. The desperate desire to win each and every news cycle leads to short-term thinking. Politicians put out fires they see on social media, or they change course in response to anger coming from activists. Activists and critics in the media see an outrage and demand an immediate response, but what the body politic really needs is a thoughtful, deliberate strategy and the resolve to see it through.

No administration is perfect. Americans should object, for example, to the slow pace of approving each new weapons system for Ukraine. But in each key theater, Biden’s policies are fundamentally sound. We should support Ukraine as long as it’s necessary to preserve Ukrainian independence from Russian assault. We should stand by Israel as it responds to mass murder, including by supporting a lawful offensive into the heart of Gaza. And we should continue to strengthen alliances in the Pacific to enhance our allies’ military capabilities and share the burden of collective defense.

And we should do these things while articulating a moral vision that sustains our actions. On Thursday, John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communication, did just that. First, in an interview on “Morning Joe,” he described the efforts to aid Gazan civilians — a humanitarian and legal imperative. He made it clear that the United States is working to preserve civilian life, as it should.

Later on Thursday, he also provided a wider moral context. Asked at a news conference about Biden’s observation that innocents will continue to die as Israel presses its attacks, Kirby responded with facts we cannot forget: “What’s harsh is the way Hamas is using people as human shields. What’s harsh is taking a couple of hundred hostages and leaving families anxious, waiting and worrying to figure out where their loved ones are. What’s harsh is dropping in on a music festival and slaughtering a bunch of young people just trying to enjoy an afternoon.”

By word and deed, the Biden administration is getting the moral equation correct. There should be greater pressure on Hamas to release hostages and relinquish control of Gaza than there should be pressure on Israel to stop its offensive. Hamas had no legal or moral right to launch its deliberate attack on Israeli civilians. It has no legal or moral right to embed itself in the civilian population to hide from Israeli attacks. Israel, by contrast, has every right to destroy Hamas in a manner consistent with the laws of war.

If Biden can persevere in the face of the chaos and confusion of war abroad and polarization at home, all while preserving a level of economic growth that is astonishing in contrast with the rest of the world, he’ll have his own story to tell in Chicago, one that should trump the adversity of any given moment or the concern generated by any given poll. If Biden can do his job, then he can take the stage in Chicago with his own simple pitch for re-election: In the face of disease, war, inflation and division, the economy thrives — and democracy is alive.

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