The Morning Jolt

White House

Joe Biden Is Making It Up as He Goes

President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 6, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: how Joe Biden makes it up as he goes along and hopes everything turns out okay — meaning abandoning campaign promises on taxes, the Middle East, and confronting China’s Xi Jinping; and a look at how the vision of air travel in Hunting Four Horsemen matches up to the reality of today.

Joe Biden’s Fly-by-the-Seat-of-His-Pants Presidency

President Biden, discussing whether Major League Baseball should move its All-Star Game with ESPN’s Sage Steele, March 31:

Steele: Mr. President, what do you think about the possibility that baseball decides to move their All-Star Game out of Atlanta because of this political issue?

Biden: I think today’s professional athletes are acting incredibly responsibly. I would strongly support them doing that. People look to them, they’re leaders. Look at what’s happened with the NBA as well. Look what’s happened across the board. The very people who are victimized the most are the people who are the leaders in these — in these various sports. And it’s just not right. This is Jim Crow on steroids what they’re doing in Georgia and 40 other states. What is this all about? Imagine passing a law saying you can not provide water or food for someone standing in line to vote. Can’t do that? Come on. Or you’re going to close a polling place at five o’clock when working people just get off. This is all about keeping working folks and ordinary folks that I grew up with from being able to vote.

(As you no doubt know by now, the law does not close polling places “at five o’clock when working people just get off,” and the food or water sections are designed to prevent electioneering close to a polling place. Polling-place workers are allowed to hand out food or water.)

President Biden on Tuesday, discussing whether the Masters Golf Tournament, which starts this week, should be moved out of Georgia:

Q: Mr. President, do you think the Masters golf tournament should be moved out of Georgia?

Biden: I think that’s up to the Masters. Look, you know, it is reassuring to see that for-profit operations and businesses are speaking up about how these new Jim Crow laws are just antithetical to who we are. There’s another side to it, too. The other side to it too is: When they, in fact, move out of Georgia, the people who need the help the most — people who are making hourly wages — sometimes get hurt the most. I think it’s a very tough decision for a corporation to make or a group to make, but I respect it when they make that judgment, and I support whatever judgment they make. But it’s — the best way to deal with this is for Georgia and other states to smarten up. Stop it. Stop it. It’s about getting people to vote. [Emphasis added]

The MLB All-Star Game and the Masters Golf Tournament don’t have many moral or economic distinctions; they’re both big, popular sporting events that in non-pandemic circumstances bring in a lot of out-of-state visitors who will spend money on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, rental cars, merchandise, etc. As many Cobb County officials have noted, moving the All-Star Game from Atlanta means that “people who need the help the most — people who are making hourly wages” get hurt the most. The local tourism bureau estimates $100 million in lost revenue, although others dispute that figure. Either way, it’s not a small sum.

Joe Biden — amiable, back-slapping, “come on, man!”- and “malarkey!”-spouting creature of Washington — has thankfully lost the habit of bragging about how his IQ is probably higher than other people’s. But he’s not a particularly clear, coherent, or consistent thinker. Everything he said yesterday about a boycott hurting the people who need help the most applies to moving the All-Star Game, which he said he strongly supports.

And if Biden genuinely believes his absurd contention that the new Georgia voting law is “Jim Crow on steroids,” or as be bizarrely put it, “makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” then it makes no sense to argue that the Masters should not be moved — or, as I observed Monday, lots of other high-profile sporting events in the state in the coming year.

Why the contradiction? Because Biden and his team belatedly realized the “Jim Crow on steroids” rhetoric that he and other Democrats had used worked too well; the allegedly unifying president had unthinkingly endorsed a corporate boycott of a state, a boycott that would hurt poor Georgians the most. After Democrats spent a week arguing that a law which largely expanded voting opportunities from the pre-pandemic standards was worse than state-mandated segregation, full-scale abrogation of voting rights, and a de facto official approval of terrorism against minorities, corporate America acted as if Democrats meant it. (By the way, after Biden said he supported a boycott of Georgia, E. J. Dionne wrote that Biden “is rolling back the politics of culture wars.” I guess it all depends upon how you define “culture wars.”)

You may recall, more than a decade ago, my writing that “all statements from Barack Obama come with an expiration date.” President Trump was no stranger to broken promises, erratic decision-making, and sudden changes in policy, either. And now Joe Biden demonstrates that his default setting, much like his recent predecessors’, is to say whatever the person in front of him wants to hear, and to worry about the consequences later.

This is why Jen Psaki and other Biden flacks are perpetually offering some variation of, “What he meant to say was,” or “You’re misunderstanding what he said.” In the vast majority of circumstances, you understood it just fine; it’s just that what he said a day before or last week or last month is proving extraordinarily difficult to align with the political demands of the moment.

For example, you may have noticed that Biden keeps insisting, “I start with one rule: No one — I’ll say it again: no one — making under $400,000 will see their federal taxes go up. Period.” His campaign web site declared, “Joe Biden will not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000. Period.” But as my colleagues keep pointing out, the actual text of his proposal refers to $400,000 as household income, not individual income. If you’re making $201,000 and your spouse makes the same, your taxes will go up during the Biden plan. Does Biden know what’s actually in his proposal? Does he care? Does he feel as if this proposal is “close enough”? If so, shouldn’t he stop making such sweeping and emphatic statements that aren’t really accurate?

Meanwhile, Biden’s secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, talked up a new mileage-based tax last month, and then walked it back. Biden’s campaign promises are proving to be more of a loose guideline at most.

For example, on the campaign trail, Biden pledged he would “work with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to support peacebuilding efforts in the region. Biden will urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to take steps to keep the prospect of a negotiated two-state outcome alive and avoid actions, such as unilateral annexation of territory and settlement activity, or support for incitement and violence, that undercut prospects for peace between the parties.”

Now that Biden is in office, Politico reports that, “unlike Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Biden hasn’t named a special envoy to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio. Unlike Bill Clinton, Biden has no plans for any sort of peace conference, or even a peace process, anytime soon . . . Aside from taking a few small steps to reorient the U.S. position away from the heavily pro-Israel tilt it took under Trump — including restoring some modest aid to the Palestinians — Biden and his team are signaling that the conflict is simply not a priority.”

For what it’s worth, I’m fine with Biden deprioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. America can’t force peace upon circumstances where the parties aren’t willing to make concessions. But I don’t think it’s good for the country to elect a president believing his policies are going to be A, B, and C, and to learn, after electing him, that he’s really going to enact X, Y, and Z. I realize our political system is always going to be imperfect, and just about all of the current incentives for candidates reward them for unrealistic promises to deliver miracles and ignore the trade-offs. But it feels as if with each successive presidency, we get closer to the inaugurated president declaring, “Okay, now that I’m sworn in, let me tell you what my real positions are.”

One last example: Back in April 2020, Biden argued, “The uncomfortable truth is that Donald Trump left America exposed and vulnerable to this pandemic. He ignored the warnings of health experts and intelligence agencies and put his trust in China’s leaders instead. Now, we’re all paying the price . . . on the same day I was calling for CDC access, President Trump was applauding Xi Jinping for his work on the coronavirus.”

Yesterday:

Q: And one more on COVID, Mr. President. You mentioned 554,064 American dead from COVID-19. A lot of families want to know how this happened, how it got here. Have you had a chance to speak to any of your international partners, any of — President Xi, who I know you go way back with? Have you had the chance to ask him if these reports are true, that China may be misled the world at the beginning?

Biden: No, I — I have not had that conversation with President Xi. Thank you.

ADDENDUM: Continuing the comparison of the imagined-a-year-ago post-pandemic world of Hunting Four Horsemen to the gradually getting-past-the-pandemic world of today:

[Air travelers standing on line at the airport] were no longer required to maintain six feet of distance from those in front of them, but in almost everyone, the habit lingered. If the number of air travelers ever came back to pre-pandemic levels, the lengthy lines would become chaotic. For better or worse, international airports now almost never got busier than midday on a Tuesday in the old days.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in December 2020, about 4.7 million people flew internationally; the previous December it was almost 20 million. Overall, international air travel in 2020 was about a quarter of what it was the previous year, and domestic air travel was only 41 percent of what it was the previous year. In recent weeks, domestic air travel has climbed a bit more, but it’s still only about 60 percent of 2019 numbers.

As of March 30, 50 countries have completely restricted entry to non-citizens, and an additional 90 countries have at least partial entry restrictions in place.

Thankfully, airports have never quite developed the ominous warnings described in HFH:

Above the heads of the travelers standing in line, a recorded woman’s voice repeated a warning in several languages. “Please answer all health security questions fully and completely. Withholding information or hiding symptoms can result in fines, imprisonment, and mandatory quarantine periods.”

But some U.S. travelers are getting stuck abroad after testing positive: “Travelers don’t need a COVID-19 test to fly to Mexico, but they can’t board a flight back to the United States from the country or any international destination without showing a negative test taken no more than three days before departure or proof of recovery from COVID-19. Test positive, and you can’t fly home until you are cleared by a doctor or provide proof of a negative test. Hotel and airline interpretations of the CDC rules vary, but travelers who’ve been stuck say they were told between 10 and 14 days in isolation.”

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