Biden can read the teleprompter, but not the room

If you’ve ever spent time in Washington, you’ve heard stories about Joe Biden’s gossip. When asked to make brief remarks, he was famous for meandering for 30, 40 or more minutes about whatever came to his mind.

But his verbiage is a symptom of his biggest problem: a lack of situational awareness. After all, this is the man who once asked a man in a wheelchair to stand up and bend over.

My favorite example came after the 9/11 attacks, when Biden met with Senate committee staff and entered into a “consciousness soliloquy” about how to respond. “I’m groping here,” he admitted after a while, and then had a eureka moment. To reassure the Arab world that the United States “was not intent on destroying it,” Michael Crowley reported in the New Republic, Biden declared, “It seems to me that this would be a good time to send a check for $200 million, without strings or conditions, to Iran.”

According to Crowley, Biden is “browsing the table with raised eyebrows, how do you like that? Look at his face.” The workers eventually broke the bewildered silence, and lodged a number of objections. It doesn’t matter: “Joe Biden is hardly listening. He’s already moved on to something else.”

Two decades later, his White House staff are said to live in constant worry about his boss’s inability to monitor his words, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has admitted that they are trying to stop him from answering too many questions.

Biden himself has acknowledged the problem, but he believes it gives him an air of authenticity. Perhaps he had a point.

But his inability to read the room, not the length of the wind, is the source of his political problems. His explanations for his handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan often matched poorly with the present, seeming defensive or defiant when remorse or humility was required. Sometimes, it’s not his fault. Declared a victory of sorts over the pandemic, just as the Delta variant threw everyone into a loop.

However, the best example of his misreading of the moment is his entire local agenda, or at least the part under the Infrastructure heading.

Biden took office with a slim majority in Congress, and arguably in history: Senate 50-50 by a very slim margin in the House. Nevertheless, he allowed people to convince him that the time had come for a “transformational” agenda, one that would rival the New Deal. The passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package — in the wake of trillions of additional spending under the Trump administration — has been misinterpreted as a green light for significantly more spending. Adjusted for inflation, spending on the New Deal was just under $1 trillion in today’s dollars. He’s suggesting, at least, several new spending deals.

Put aside the fact that there is little evidence that the country is yearning for a New Deal. Ignore that our national debt is about 125% of GDP. Biden, with half a century of political experience under his belt, can’t count the votes. Roosevelt and LBJ had a huge majority to work with for their major accomplishments. Even Obamacare would have been impossible in Congress today.

Of course, the main driver of Biden’s predicament is that the Democratic base can’t read the room either. But they don’t care.

But Biden is the president. He’s the one who insisted on the campaign trail that “to lead America, you have to understand America,” and was touting his mastery of how Washington works.

In June, following his relief package, Biden brokered a bipartisan infrastructure deal with the Senate, winning the support of 19 Republicans. It was a milestone for Biden’s presidency, delivering on his promise to be a competent president who gets things done. But before the bipartisan retreat calmed, he misread the room again, declaring that he wouldn’t sign that deal unless the Senate also gave another $3.5 trillion in “human infrastructure.” It’s no coincidence that his approval ratings have been falling ever since.


Jonah Goldberg is the editor-in-chief of The Dispatch.

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