How Joe Biden Became the Stay-Out-of-It President

7 minute read

President Joe Biden wanted to feel for himself the jolting torque delivered by the Ford F-150 Lightning electric motor. On May 18, as Biden’s staff back in Washington frantically worked behind the scenes to push Israel and Hamas to nail down a ceasefire, the self-described “car guy” had kept his scheduled trip to Dearborn, Michigan to see Ford’s electric truck plant and highlight the green technologies and manufacturing jobs that are part of his economic recovery effort.

Just as Biden was about to jam the accelerator, a reporter on the test track interrupted him. “Mr. President, can I ask you a quick question on Israel before you drive away since it’s so important?” Biden shut it down. “No, you can’t. Not unless you step in front of the car as I step on it. I’m only teasing,” he said, shooting a smile at the gaggle of press from under his aviator glasses. “Ok here we go, ready?” Biden hit the pedal and sped away.

That moment in Michigan was emblematic of how Biden handled the first big foreign policy crisis of his presidency—and one that exposed internal divisions within his own party. While the White House touted how he and his staff conducted over 80 phone calls with officials in the region behind the scenes, Biden kept his public remarks and appearances focused on the two things upon which he has staked the success of his first term: reining in the pandemic and jumpstarting the economy.

As the violence in Israel and Gaza escalated over 11 days, Biden left the public remarks about the conflict largely to others in the Administration who described its efforts as “quiet” and “intense” diplomacy. When he stepped off Air Force One in Detroit on his way to the Ford plant, Rep. Rashida Tlaib—the first Palestinian-American to serve in Congress—talked to him for several minutes, out of earshot of reporters, about Israel’s retaliatory barrages in Gaza and her concerns for the safety of Palestinians, including her grandmother in the West Bank. Later, speaking at the car factory, Biden said he admired Tlaib’s “intellect,” “passion” and “concern for so many other people.” But he didn’t take the moment to weigh in on how or when the conflict should end.

The only time Biden delivered stand-alone remarks on the violence was two days later, on May 20, after Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire that both his Administration and Egypt had helped facilitate. In a three-minute speech, Biden said he had spoken with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu six times and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority more than once in the previous 11 days. He reiterated the U.S.’ belief that Israel has a right to self-defense, and pledged to work with the Palestinian Authority to help the citizens of Gaza, where over 200 Palestinians died and parts of which were decimated after 11 days of bombing. He did not respond to shouted questions from reporters afterwards.

It’s a stay-out-of-it strategy that has become a hallmark of Biden’s nascent administration. He employed similar methods in March, when calls for imminent action on gun control reform reached a crescendo in the wake of two shooting sprees in Atlanta, Georgia and Boulder, Colorado that killed over 18 people. That same month, Biden delegated his administration’s response to the influx of unaccompanied minors on the border to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Vice President Kamala Harris, and didn’t visit the border himself. In April, he declined to weigh in on the trial of Derek Chauvin until the jury was sequestered, although he asked for a police reform bill to get to his desk by May 25.

Biden is keeping his public focus on the thing he and his advisers believe the American public cares about most: recovering from the pandemic and creating jobs. The trip to Michigan and Biden’s exchange with Tlaib was “probably the closest events came to taking it off course,” a senior administration official says. When White House press secretary Jen Psaki took questions aboard Air Force One en route to Michigan, she was peppered about Israel and Gaza, as she was every day this week. But on the ground, Biden, the official says, “still actually stayed focused. He still got to drive the electric Ford and basically delivered the core economic message.”

The contrast with the previous occupant of the Oval Office is stark. President Donald Trump daily sent the news cycle, and the work of entire agencies, in new directions with his tweets, even when his staff had carefully planned events to highlight a policy win. Biden’s discipline has baffled long-time Joe watchers, who note that as Vice President and Senator, Biden also earned a reputation for being undisciplined and veering off script.

But as President he’s taken a different tack. He’s used his daily intelligence briefings as his moment to give direction to his foreign policy team and check on their progress, says the official, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, both former close aides during his years as Vice President. As the conflict escalated, he relied on them to tell him when he was needed on a call to push things along with Netanyahu, Abbas, or Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist and former spokesperson for Barack Obama who is close to the White House, recalls that early on in the Obama Administration, the President’s public remarks focused on a wide array of issues, ultimately obscuring his actions on economic recovery. This time, he said, Biden’s aides, many of of whom are Obama veterans, are “starting from that premise that the focus of the message should be on taming the pandemic and reviving the economy.” Even as other things come up that he needs to address, “it will always come back to that,” LaBolt says.

This strategy may be tested when it comes to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Finding a solution to this decades-old conflict was never a centerpiece of the Biden Administration agenda, and few expect that to change now. “There certainly is a recognition that the circumstances are not right [to broker a peace agreement]” says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and president of the pro-Israel advocacy group Democratic Majority for Israel. “One can argue that they haven’t been right for a long time because it hasn’t happened but they haven’t even been ripe enough to get to the stage others got to in the past.”

Still, the past week-and-a-half of violence has also exposed a simmering internal rift within the Democratic party over aid to Israel. Some of the party’s most prominent progressive members, like Tlaib, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have been increasingly vocal about challenging the billions of dollars in assistance the U.S. provides to Israel, and moved this week to block a $735 million arms sale. And they’ve shown no indications they will lessen that discourse, even if the ceasefire holds. After video emerged of Israeli security forces firing tear gas outside Al Aqsa mosque police, Tlaib immediately started tweeting. “Is this what a ceasefire looks like?” she wrote. “The Israeli apartheid government has no shame.”

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