A SUCCESSFUL presidency for Joe Biden would repair the most serious damage left over from America’s fling with a demagogue. More precisely, it would fix as much of the damage as would be in Biden’s power as president to fix, beginning with a restoration of truth, ethics, and the rule of law to the White House and executive branch. Biden’s legacy will rest on how well he performs the repair job, more than on any programs to move the country ahead from where it stood as of 2016.
This is a more modest standard than is usually applied to presidential legacies, but it is reasonable in this case for two reasons. One is the extent and severity of the damage that Donald Trump has inflicted, which has cut to the very democratic foundations of the republic. The other reason is that Joe Biden will be eighty-two years old when his term ends in 2025. He need make no apologies if he becomes the first U.S. president since Rutherford Hayes to relinquish power willingly after four years in office. With one term that will be preoccupied from the outset with a severe pandemic and its economic fallout in addition to the post-Trump repair work, the time and attention left to move the country boldly in new directions will be limited.
If Republicans continue to control the Senate, Biden can kiss most of his legislative program good-bye, including on taxation and probably health care. As Barack Obama’s vice president, he saw first-hand how Obama’s offering of an open hand across the aisle was met with a clenched fist. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared then that his number one priority was not to advance the health, welfare, or security of the American people but instead to make Obama a one-term president. The 2020 Congressional election results give McConnell and his caucus no incentive to abandon such hyper-partisanship, with everything this implies regarding obstruction and trying to make the Biden presidency unsuccessful.
Biden has taken pride throughout his political career in his ability to work across the aisle. He will, and he should, leave open the possibility of such cooperation, however unlikely success may seem. Maybe early in his administration he should declare an “infrastructure week” that really includes a plan to boost the public investment the country badly needs. But the president should not waste time and political capital negotiating with himself and seeking bipartisan cooperation that may never come.
Biden will have to rely heavily on executive orders and already has indicated his intention to do so. Republican-appointed judges will always be a possible hurdle, especially with any executive action that goes beyond undoing what Trump did with executive action. High priority should be given—in addition to necessary attention to the pandemic—making up for lost time in addressing the climate crisis, on such matters as methane leakage and vehicle emission standards. Also requiring early attention will be undoing Trump’s attacks on government itself, including his blatant attempts to politicize the civil service and postal service.
Foreign policy always has given presidents more latitude than domestic policy to act in the absence of Congressional cooperation, and this certainly will be true with the incoming administration. This fact meshes with Biden’s knowledge and experience, which easily makes him the best-prepared incoming president since George H.W. Bush to manage foreign relations. A single Biden term will look a lot like the second term of many two-term presidencies, when most of a president’s domestic agenda has been either achieved or foiled and he starts spending more of his time on foreign problems.
The damage from the Trump administration’s heavily politicized assaults on the machinery to conduct foreign relations must be quickly repaired. The morale and influence of the badly battered Foreign Service must be restored. The attempts to convert foreign broadcast outlets into Trump propaganda organs need to be reversed, and their journalistic integrity and reputation for objectivity re-established.
A guiding foreign policy principle should be for the United States to act as—to borrow a standard sometimes applied to China—a responsible stakeholder. This involves recognizing shared interests, negotiating in good faith, and abiding by agreements, as well as repairing badly frayed relations with important allies.
Biden already has stated his intention to rejoin immediately the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, a worthy statement of priorities in the face of the global crises on climate and health. Responsible stake-holding in arms control includes an extension of New START and a return to compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and the related Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which restricted Iran’s nuclear program. On trade, being responsible means no more “national security” rationales for slapping tariffs on Canadian aluminum, and it means reliance more on multilateral cooperation than on bilateral trade wars to resolve grievances.
The new administration should conduct an all-azimuths foreign policy which recognizes both conflicting and converging interests with everyone, and practices diplomacy with anyone. Such a policy would end the previous administration’s Manichean approach to the Middle East in which supposed friends are seen as doing no evil and presumptively evil adversaries are seen as doing nothing legitimate. Policy toward great powers should not try to define the next Cold War but instead should exploit opportunities for leverage and cooperation with all the powers, much as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did in the 1970s.
In my view, there will be no “Biden Doctrine,” and four years from now, critics probably will charge that the sort of presidency prescribed here did not do enough. They will be wrong. Future historians, putting into perspective the terrible ordeal that Americans have just suffered, will see it differently.
Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. He also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group and is a Contributing Editor for The National Interest.