Shribman: Honeymoon over, Biden parries challenges from all sides

President Joe Biden speaks about a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, in the Cross Hall of the White House, Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This month, deadly bombs rained down on Gaza, and rocket attacks wreaked destruction in Israel. In a metaphorical sense, on Capitol Hill and in the White House, explosive political predicaments are besieging President Joe Biden.

For a while, the president was profiting from the ending of the 1911 British novel "The Card" by Arnold Bennett, whose protagonist was asked what he had accomplished with his life. The answer came without hesitation: "He's identified with the great cause of cheering us all up."

That is over now.

Biden's involvement in the violence in the Middle East was too tentative and too late for some of Israel's most ardent defenders. His spending proposals are creating worries about inflation. His infrastructure plan is too broad for the Republicans he hoped to lasso into his corner, both to assure easy passage of the bill and to stand as a public sign that there is still a faint breath of bipartisanship in the old institutions of American civic life.

As a result, Biden this spring has joined the parade of presidents who have felt the pain not only of the American people, but also of the burden of their own woes. "If to be head of Hell is as hard as what I have to undergo here," Abraham Lincoln once said, "I could find it in my heart to pity Satan himself." Biden, who spent a lifetime in politics making friends on both sides of the political aisle, might feel the way John F. Kennedy did when he said that "the presidency is not a very good place to make friends."

On the left, Biden was assailed for being too fainthearted in his dealings with Israel. On the right, his critics said his support for Israel's right to defend itself was mere meaningless boilerplate rhetoric. In the background were unspoken worries: from Democrats that even Jimmy Carter was more effective, from Republicans that Donald J. Trump was more supportive of Israel.

"The Republicans are much more pro-Israel now than are the Democrats," said Leila Farsakh, a University of Massachusetts, Boston, expert on the Middle East. "And among Democrats, there are more and more calls to require that Israeli aid not be used against civilians."

In fairness, the president did not have a clear, easy path for engagement. If he leaned too hard on Israel, he risked the backing of Jewish supporters who remember that in his campaign, he vowed that as president he would "continue to ensure that the Jewish state, the Jewish people and Jewish values have the unbreakable support of the United States." If he leaned too hard against Iran-backed Hamas, he risked jeopardizing his efforts to rejoin and reinvigorate the Iran nuclear accord.

No wonder Abigail Adams, the wife and mother of American presidents, said that "the task of the president is very arduous, very perplexing, and very hazardous. I do not wonder (George) Washington wished to retire from it." There was a time -- primarily in the decade and a half between 1945 and 1960 -- when the United States could pretty much get its way, in the United Nations and across the globe, merely by expressing its will. Now Biden is seeing the limits in White House power that William Howard Taft discerned when he said that "the president cannot make clouds to rain, he cannot make the corn to grow, he cannot make business to be good."

Even so, Biden isn't entirely powerless.

"He has leverage, if he is willing to use it," said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "The United States is a huge supporter of Israel in many different ways, but the leverage, like touching the annual aid to Israel, is usually off the table. So far Biden isn't even close to this." Some of his putative Democratic allies -- not only the progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, but also stalwart supporters of Israel such as House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory W. Meeks of New York -- indicated last week that they are in fact close to that.

The price tag for American aid to Israel: $3.3 billion a year, the latest installment in what the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service described five months ago as "the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II."

But the Middle East isn't the only issue roiling the White House. The president is more involved in negotiations with Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia over the infrastructure bill than he is with Benjamin Netanyahu or any Hamas figure, with about the same lack of resolution.

At the same time, worries about inflation are rising faster than inflation itself, which may be reaching the takeoff point in a country that has forgotten the price it paid for inflation in the 1970s; the rate for that decade was double the normal average, and interest rates nearly hit 20%. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal worried that inflationary expectations might trigger a dangerous economic chain reaction that would shape the behavior of workers, business executives and consumers: "Workers demand higher wages to keep up with prices no matter the underlying productivity; businesses pay to keep those workers and then raise prices to compensate. Workers then demand high wages as expectations are hard to break."

Biden may yet split with the progressives in his party -- the current crisis in Israel and Gaza may give him that chance -- but he still must confront the question of whether to "pack" the Supreme Court by adding four new justices to the high court. A similar proposal by Franklin Delano Roosevelt nudged the justices to soften their opposition to the New Deal -- the fabled "switch in time that saved nine" -- but FDR has been pilloried by historians for his gambit. Biden last month ordered a study of the notion, which merely kicked this explosive can down a dangerous road. Eventually he will have to take a position.

When Andrew Jackson was elected to the White House in 1828, Daniel Webster was asked to assess the new president. He said Jackson "will bring a breeze with him," adding, "Which way it will blow, I cannot tell." Four months into the Biden ascendancy, the Webster evaluation stands.

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

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