Frank Bruni

Biden’s Biggest Nightmare Is One He Didn’t See Coming

As Joe Biden campaigned for the White House in 2020, he knew that the next president of the United States would govern under circumstances significantly more daunting than those that most faced.

As he took the oath of office in 2021, he could see very clearly — in the tally of Covid-related deaths, in the economic and social devastation of the pandemic, in the country’s vicious partisanship — the immense scope and immeasurable difficulty of the work ahead.

But he surely never expected this.

Never expected war in Europe. Never expected a confrontation with Vladimir Putin of such urgency and unpredictable proportions. Never expected that his stack of challenges would grow this much taller, in this particularly terrifying way.

He delivered his first formal State of the Union address on Tuesday night as both a leader and a lesson: Few who have taken a seat at the Resolute Desk end up reading from anything like the script they had first imagined for themselves — or that others had imagined for them. Presidents plan. History laughs.

Or weeps or screams — those seem the more appropriate verbs now. Whatever the language, I look at Biden and I not only examine someone in what the journalist John Dickerson, in the title of his 2020 book, calls “The Hardest Job in the World.” I also behold someone in history’s crucible, learning or relearning what every candidate should know and what every voter should factor into his or her calculations, which is how quickly events jag and how suddenly they judder.

Biden is in many ways a propitious fit for current events. It’s useful, at this fearful juncture, to have a decidedly even-tempered president with his broad perspective, which has thus far prevented a potentially catastrophic overreaction to Putin’s saber-rattling.

It’s useful to have a president with his regard for institutions and NATO specifically. The Western alliance has been more united than Putin or just about anybody else wagered it would be, and Biden gets some credit for that. As John Avlon, the author of the new book “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace,” told me, “This is reflecting his experience and at least some of his intended strengths.”

But Avlon agreed that Biden belongs to a long line of presidents tugged far off script. Avlon reminded me that President Woodrow Wilson had once famously said, “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Well, fate went full-throttle ironic in the form of the First World War.

“It’s almost always foreign affairs,” Avlon, a senior political analyst and anchor for CNN, said, “because the process of campaigning is almost always about domestic affairs.”

President George W. Bush, in his bid for the White House, questioned “nation building” in foreign lands, sounded somewhat isolationist at times and emphasized aspects of his persona that complemented a relatively prosperous, peaceful chapter of American life. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Jimmy Carter, whose appeal was largely as an ethical correction after President Richard Nixon, found himself dealing with stagflation at home and the Iranian hostage crisis abroad.

We elect presidents — or should — not just for the moment but for any moment, because the moment changes in the blink of an autocrat’s ego. It did for Biden.

“No president had delivered his State of the Union address with such a large-scale and consequential land war underway in Europe since 1945,” Peter Baker wrote in The Times, describing just how unusual Biden’s situation suddenly is.

Also in The Times, David Sanger weighed in: “Eastern Europe was not the battlefield Mr. Biden had in mind when he raised the idea last year that the battle of ‘autocracy versus democracy’ would be the defining foreign policy principle of his administration.” No, the scheming of Donald Trump, not Putin, was undoubtedly front of mind.

Dickerson, the “Hardest Job” author and the chief political analyst for CBS News, told me that when Biden took office, Afghanistan and “trying to orient the West’s focus — his focus — toward China” were top priorities. “Land war in Europe was not on that agenda,” he noted.

“Having said that, all the planning that he’s done in his career, the building of alliances, the team he put together: Implicit in their approach to the world is that the presidency surprises you with things all the time,” he added. “This is a job of surprises.”

The New York Times