Joe Biden’s Choice: Jimmy Carter or Harry Truman

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Harry S. Truman address the nation from the White House.


Photo:

Leif Skoogfors / Corbis via Getty Images; Bettmann Archives

President Biden must decide: Does he want to be remembered as a Jimmy Carter or a Harry Truman?

Messrs. Truman, Carter and Biden took office hoping to reassure a nation that is traumatized only when their plans are foiled by the unexpected. Like Truman and Carter, Biden is grappling with inflation, and all three have worked to unify a woeful Democratic Party left behind by traditional centrist opponents.

Just as Mr. Biden was always straining to keep up with international events, dramatic changes forced Truman and Carter to reassess America’s place in the world. Mr. Biden’s messy retreat from Afghanistan has raised questions of competence. World energy producers have been forcing prices higher. Regardless of whether Mr. Biden strikes a nuclear deal with Iran, critics will argue that the administration’s desire to withdraw has influenced the shoals of the Middle East reality. This photo taken from the southern border of the US shows the loss of control. And Ukraine will most likely remain a bloody, brutal battlefield for months, if not years.

In the 1946 midterm elections, voters rejected Truman’s “random presidency,” electing Republican majorities in Congress for the first time in 14 years. Truman adapted: He became foreign policy president, creating the economic and coalition plans that laid the groundwork for American global leadership for the rest of the 20th century. By contrast, Carter has managed to recover from economic and international setbacks, but the repeated stumbling blocks create the impression of drift.

Mr. Biden’s State of the Union address in March showed the White House’s uncertainty about how to adapt to changed circumstances. He opens by rallying Americans to defend Ukraine before circling a laundry list of scrapped, rejected domestic plans — sounding interested in pleasing the party’s left. their own rather than calling on the nation.

Mr. Biden will have other opportunities to engineer Truman-esque change. As they arise, he should explain how dramatic events changed the world and why he changed too. His new message can be based on three pillars:

First, the United States must step up military investment. The administration drafted a defense budget before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the security landscape in Europe. Mr. Biden now needs to match new commitments with updated strategies. Ukrainians need weapons and technology to defend themselves. The United States needed new plans for forward defense in the Atlantic and Pacific. Treaties relating to nuclear weapons, missiles, and American troops in Europe are outdated. The administration needs modern technologies and new concepts of flexible response, combined with a willingness to negotiate so that weapons of mass destruction — including infamous cyberattacks — are never used. use.

Second, America must grow stronger and more resilient at home. The foundation must be respect for the core constitutional principle of free elections, including acceptance of the results; a long overdue bipartisan reform of the Voter Count Act. The country also needs to prepare for the next pandemic. Mr. Biden could encourage oil and gas production along with the transition to renewable energy through market incentives. Americans may have difficulty understanding climate patterns, but everyone sees severe storms and floods along with the need to adapt. The president can promote scientific research and development in computers, communications, energy, and biology. He should focus schools on educating for the future by talking to political centrists who don’t care about identity politics. America should attract the world’s talent and encourage newcomers. The president would also be wise to keep his distance from those in his own party trying to bring down the police. He can do this by pledging to be safe on the streets while respecting everyone’s civil rights.

Third, the President needs to explain that only the United States can build a new type of international alliance, working with allies but also having the foresight to call on developing countries to exercise restraint. Russia-China challenge. Under President George W. Bush, the United States led the global effort to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria. The Biden administration should do the same on Covid. Americans can help build global resilience in the face of food price shocks and climate change by providing the world with emergency supplies, seeds and fertilizers. All of this can be done while keeping markets open and encouraging investment for future production, efficiency and commerce. Washington’s long-term strategy should emphasize openness and opportunity, as opposed to authoritarian restraint.

Mr. Biden may be reasonably worried that Congress lacks Arthur Vandenbergs, the Republican senator with whom Truman worked to design America’s successful international architecture. But the reaction of most Republicans to Ukraine suggests that the president can negotiate support for the three pillars of national security and strength if he acts decisively.

Presidents love to associate themselves with the feisty Truman, especially when their poll numbers drop. But they rarely realized how bold he was. Breaking with the past would anger the powerful election authorities in the Biden administration. White House staffers and political advisers who have progressed through the old system will offer prudent advice. But the memoirs of handymen during the Carter administration saddens the reader. Mr. Biden needs to write a modern-day Truman story.

Mr. Zoellick is a former World Bank president, US trade representative and deputy secretary of state. He is the author of “America in the World”.

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Alley Einstein

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