Poor Joe Biden. After more than 30 years of searching for the Oval Office – including a senior junior politician who was only 20 years old at the time of Biden’s first bid – and spent eight years as a dog’s body – he now sees his presidency derailed by events beyond his control. Although Russia has not directly threatened the United States, Biden has restructured the focus of the White House in a way that many former presidents would be familiar with. This should be a lesson in presidential weakness for all Americans.
Throughout his career, it was never clear what Biden wanted to achieve with the president outside of reaching the pinnacle of American politics. But the issue of climate change has given him something on which his prospects for a legacy hung. He could be the president who has finally made great strides towards a great power shift that will free the country from fossil fuels and begin the process of counteracting rising global temperatures. Given the religiously apocalyptic nature of the issue to many, it could possibly gain a place in the list of greats in the history of the presidency.
In his campaign speech, Biden announced that we would get rid of fossil fuels. In his first days in office, he brought the United States back to the Paris Agreement, revoked a Keystone XL pipeline permit, and suspended oil and gas leases on government land. He then proposed a “Build Back Better” plan that would invest heavily in environmental initiatives, including investments in technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Unfortunately, his views focused on the geopolitical and economic realities of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the (partially) high price of oil and natural gas that resulted from that war. He did not give up hope of becoming a transgender president. After an initial break in the new oil and gas lease by a federal court, he has now resumed the lease process, but with an 80 percent reduction from what the Department of the Interior originally recommended for the lease.
But his plan to rid the United States of fossil fuels abruptly drew criticism from oil companies for not doing enough and urged OPEC to increase production. He is now trying to balance the current high energy prices with the reality of future change in a country where most people are reluctant to pay more than $ 40 a month to prevent further climate change. That, of course, is part of the reason why his approval rating is permanently stuck below 50 percent, and Democrats are worried about his chances in the upcoming midterm elections.
There is nothing unusual about this. Despite being the most powerful person in the world, presidents often find that events – especially geopolitical ones – are controlled rather than reversed. A derailed presidency could be more ideal than an exception.
This is also not a recent issue. Martin van Buren, Ulysses Grant and Herbert Hoover did not look for an economic crisis while in office. Woodrow Wilson, at least initially, did not explore World War I. But it entered and then bankrolled its presidency in the League of Nations over its post-war reaction to international warfare, rejecting US Senate membership in the League, and its ultimate failure to prevent World War II created a single policy failure that still defines its legacy.
Jimmy Carter managed some important regulatory goals and left a significant environmental legacy with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. But in the end, his bid for re-election failed and his legacy was tarnished by the revolution in Iran, the hostage crisis and the partially related push for oil prices and high inflation levels. It doesn’t matter if it’s okay to put one at his feet or not, which is not the case. The issue is how unfair it can be for presidents.
Even Lincoln, regularly proclaimed one of America’s greatest presidents by presidency-based historians, achieved greatness only because his presidency was completely alienated from his more modest goal by secession and civil war. It was, of course, a battle of choice for him – he could have chosen to allow the Confederate states to secede instead – but it would also derail his presidency, as he had no greater reason to defend the union. Instead, his successor could be the president who allowed the United States to split. He did not want this choice, but it forced him. In addition, the choice eventually cost him his life.
Some presidents get lucky, or perhaps create their own destiny through skill. The FDR operated little before 1941 but was able to extend a financial crisis to record depth and length, but was able to re-elect successively through charisma. He then adapted to the role of wartime president during one of the greatest riots in world history. If he left office after two terms in 1940, when the unemployment rate was still above 14 percent, most people would not mistake him for the end of the Great Depression.
Ronald Reagan was another lucky one. A sharp Fed-induced recession in its first year in office made a rough start, but it helped set the stage for a decade of strong economic growth by ending inflation expectations. He is fortunate to have a conservative majority in Congress. (Conversely, Joe Biden faces a Senate where West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin does not have a functional majority due to reconsideration to adopt an anti-fossil field agenda.)
But where Reagan’s greatest legacy came from was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the fall was primarily due to the internal conflicts of a communist state and the catastrophe of the conflict in Afghanistan, Reagan turned the fight against the evil Soviet empire into a pillar of his presidency and then the president on the far right. Time to give his supporters a colorful claim to his responsibilities.
If Biden is lucky, he will be able to claim credit for most of the united opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But given Americans’ greater interest in domestic affairs than in foreign policy matters, what it really needs is for gas prices for summer travel to return to a more consumer-friendly level and for a quick end to inflation without a general recession. To help the Democrats in the midterm elections. Otherwise there will be a long slog of two or six more years until the end of his presidency – some presidents have achieved a lot in their second term and Democrats are less likely to retain control of Congress for the next six years.
In short, the presidency is at least determined by fate as much as by skill. And as luck would have it, there are more ways to get things wrong than to get things right. So presidents are more likely to have bad luck than good.
If we had retained the basic idea of the Constitution, where the House, the Chamber of the People was seen as the foundation of a responsive and accountable government and the President was seen as the administrator rather than the leader, this reliance on fate would be less. But from the beginning there were presidents who wanted to be the center of political power, and today, without formal constitutional changes, but through democratic demands, we have cemented this central role for the president.
This makes fate even more important, because we demand much more from presidents. The misfortune of a mere administrator is entirely on a much smaller scale. The misfortune of great leaders can be catastrophic. Or at least, by raising expectations for the office, it can keep us dissatisfied forever. It is no coincidence that the ratings of contemporary presidents’ approvals have plummeted over time, with the exception of events like Trump and Biden where they may not have risen so high in the first place to show a fall. Only time will tell whether these two recent presidents are statistically inconsistent or new.
We cannot expect this change. It is questionable whether politicians who are capable of dominating the humorous world of international and even domestic events exist. But of course the nature of the American presidential election – a process of charismatic appeal to people ignorant of public policy – has shown itself incapable of bringing them before them.
But we can choose individually how to observe, understand and respond to that process. And while acknowledging that those who have been elected may have the trait of presidential dominance, fate allows us to be consistent about everything.