June 18, 2024

speaks softly but fails to wield a big stick

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 24 December 2021
Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
He speaks softly but fails to wield a big stick
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          WASHINGTON — A year into his presidency, Joe Biden faces a leadership crisis. Leaders are paid to investigate and anticipate. They may not have crystal balls, but we expect them to have well-thought-out contingency plans. His expertise and competence are the reason voters elected him and ousted Donald Trump. But his failure to deliver as we round the corner from 2021 to 2022 is the major reason his poll numbers have tumbled.
          His poll ratings at this point are lower than any modern president’s except for his immediate predecessor. The expectation that he would bring the Covid-19 virus to heel has been dashed. The Omicron variant is rocketing through the country and Biden’s promise of more testing sites and free at-home test kits will not be available until well into January, too late to curb the rise of infections as people gather for the holidays. And Vice President Kamala Harris’ admission that the administration didn’t see the Delta variant coming, and then Omicron, rings hollow when public health experts have been warning of this gathering storm for some time.
          Having the vaccine is important, and Biden credited his predecessor not once but twice when he spoke to the country on his Covid plan. Now it’s up to Biden to borrow a page from Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, which gave us the vaccine and use it to make Covid testing available for everyone. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the third-ranking member of the House, had to wait 56 hours to receive the results of a Covid test. He was positive and missed his granddaughter’s wedding.
          There is a growing sense that Omicron is so transmissible that sooner or later everyone will become infected, but the death rates haven’t risen, so it may not be as deadly as its predecessors. Still, the country needs leadership to get through this.
          Again, that is what voters thought they were getting with Biden. The crisis of leadership began with the messy pullout from Afghanistan. Exiting from that war may or may not have been the right decision but the manner of extrication was a disaster. Abandoning Bagram Air Force Base, pulling our troops out of the country, and then reinserting them only to hunker down at the defenseless civilian airport was a colossal error. The military couldn’t keep the desperate crowds away, and with the crowds came a suicide bomber who took the lives of 13 U.S. service members and many more Afghans.
          It’s not too late for Biden to turn things around and regain public confidence in his leadership. For starters, he needs to get tougher. He thinks his long career in public service allows him to soft-talk everybody in pursuit of his goals. He’s a great schmoozer, but he’s no good at Big Stick diplomacy, a style of leadership pioneered by Teddy Roosevelt. “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Roosevelt proclaimed in a September 1901 speech, weeks before he would take the presidential helm.
          The phrase would define his emphasis on diplomacy and his willingness to get tough when needed. Biden would do well to embrace this process, and there are indications he already has with Russian President Putin over Ukraine, although the jury remains out.
          At home, an equally wily opponent is West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, the deciding vote on Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. Manchin was elected in 2010 and never served in the Senate with Biden, who became vice president in 2009. They do not have a shared history Biden can call upon. But the president does carry some big sticks. Among them are the constituent groups active in West Virginia lobbying for health care and childcare and paid parental leave. West Virginia is a poor state and relies on federal assistance. An indication of what Manchin is up against if he refuses to negotiate with the White House and his fellow Democrats is the power of the union that represents coal workers there.
          The United Mine Workers just publicly endorsed the BBB bill, an endorsement that undercuts Manchin, and works in tandem with Biden’s softly spoken declaration that “Senator Manchin and I are going to get something done.” Perhaps, just perhaps, Biden prompted the union in what can only be described as a “big stick” reversal of leadership.
          Douglas Cohn’s latest books are The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2021 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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