Measuring presidential leadership is a tricky business. Being a wise and astute leader can often involve making high-stakes or downright risky decisions to head off expected trouble, or reacting to crises in an appropriate and timely fashion, and striking the right balance between discretion, boldness, and humility. And leadership can just as often be marked by restraint; by what a president chooses not to do when faced with an array of options.
But while the evaluation of leadership is subjective, in the eye of the beholder, there are many approaches to governing that clearly do not represent leadership: doing something easy to grab headlines just because you can – for example, calling America systemically racist when under pressure after never having done so in 40 years in politics, or demanding the rich pay their perpetually undefined “fair share” in taxes. Making a dangerous decision strictly for political gain – think of opening up the southern border, or shutting down the Keystone pipeline, or the insistence on trillions in new spending for Build Back Better as inflation is rising.
Further examples might be blaming others for the consequences of one’s own actions, like the current president pinning virtually all of his own failures on the last president, while taking credit for what his predecessor left behind. Or refusing to do something because you are excessively risk-averse – Joe Biden actually opposed the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound as vice-president, and as president had to be goaded even by his own party into applying sanctions on Vladimir Putin following an unprovoked invasion months in the making for all the world to see.
So now we face the issue of who is really in charge of the Western alliance attempting to put Putin back in his box, as Russians carry on a ground campaign, launch missiles, and commit ongoing war crimes in an effort to quench their president’s thirst for re-establishing the Soviet empire. The Russian strongman has shown himself to be an irrational actor, a wildcard intent on keeping the West off balance even as his dream of a quick and dirty conquest of his peaceful neighbor has long since gone up in smoke, literally and figuratively.
To justify the Ukraine war for an increasingly wary Russian populace now witnessing loved ones coming home in body bags from a war which by most accounts has never been supported by the Russian people, Putin must now double down on his scorched-earth assault to gain something he can call victory. Will Joe Biden have what it takes to react properly – not out of fear or staged bravado – when the time comes and the situation demands American leadership, as it certainly will, likely sooner than later? Is this titular leader of the free world up to the ultimate daunting challenge of making an excruciating, unilateral and highly consequential decision that could determine if World War III becomes a reality?
The signs are not promising. Those on the left stuck in the world of one-step thinking are unable to react to changing circumstances. Biden opens up the border, millions cross illegally, but only a begrudging, too little-too late return to Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy was offered to reduce the flood of refugees entering the country. Inflation soars, but Biden continues to demand unprecedented levels of inflationary federal spending. Gas prices keep rising, but there is no retreat for Biden’s assault on the fossil fuel industry, to the point where this administration is forced to go hat-in-hand to the tyrants controlling the oil supply in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. And then he blames Putin for record-setting gas prices which began rising as soon as he took office, long before the war in Ukraine.
Late to the Party
To the matter of stopping the Russian strongman, Biden trusted his diplomats to reason with Putin but was ultimately forced into action, and now insists that he is “enforcing the most significant package of economic sanctions in history.” He does so as he continues to tout – or hide behind – the multilateralism inherent in the 30-member NATO alliance, but it turns out the most damaging of sanctions – against Russian banks’ energy transactions – won’t kick in until June, by which point Putin may well have expanded his war far beyond its present contours.
Biden banned Russian oil and removed the nation’s preferred trade status, but only after Congress forced his hand with bipartisan legislation. He is protecting European allies reliant on Russian oil, instead of exercising leadership as Donald Trump did, by aggressively pushing alternatives like liquid natural gas (LNG) which would allow Europe to face down Putin without one hand of energy dependence tied behind their backs.
Those who did not vote for this president have surely rooted for him to fail on rendering the border insecure, forfeiting energy independence, attempting to spend trillions more of taxpayer’s hard-earned money as inflation spirals to its highest level in 40 years, and many of his additional initiatives and appointments. But when it comes to matters of war and peace suddenly front and center on the world stage, we can certainly all agree, in hope and prayer, that Joe Biden’s response is superior to what most of us expect, and that the answer to the question of whether this president has the stomach to stand up to Vladimir Putin when circumstances demand, is yes.
~ Read more from Tim Donner.