We all knew that President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia was going to be, at best, a deeply frustrating and humiliating exercise in kissing the ring — or in Biden’s case, bumping the fist. Biden left Riyadh with no deal on oil production beyond some vague pledges, sending the world’s oil prices rising again. Members of the Washington Post editorial board were always going to hate this trip, but when it was over, their anger over their slain colleague, Jamal Khashoggi, enabled them to declare that the emperor had no clothes, and that Biden had been taken to the cleaners:
For the most part, though, Mr. Biden gave more than he got. He made no wider critique of Saudi Arabia’s repressive policies in public; there were no releases of political prisoners or clemency for other regime opponents — including dual U.S. citizens — who have been denied freedom to travel. Instead, Mr. Biden touted an already existing truce in Yemen and modest steps toward better relations with Israel. He seemed to invite deeper U.S.-Saudi ties by announcing a new project to test U.S. 5G technology in the kingdom.
And when it was all over, MBS had made no public commitment to pump more oil. The Saudis are being counted on to influence an OPEC cartel meeting next month to get a few hundred thousand more barrels onto the market, likely with only modest impact on U.S. gas prices. . . .
This was a low moment for Mr. Biden, and one that he won’t soon live down.
Adding to the humiliation, the Saudis publicly contended that behind closed doors, Biden had not confronted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of Khashoggi. We’ll just have to take Biden’s word that he was an in-your-face tough guy when no one was watching.
Unsurprisingly, Biden was in an irritable mood when he returned to the White House:
Q: Is the Saudi foreign minister lying, President Biden? The Saudi foreign minister says he didn’t hear you accuse the Crown Prince of Khashoggi’s murder. Is he telling the truth?
THE PRESIDENT: No.
Q: Do you regret the fist bump, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters? I’m happy to answer a question that matters.
Q: Will inflation go down from here, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT: I’m hoping. We’ll know in the next few weeks.
While Biden was returning from his overseas trip, First Lady Jill Biden was speaking to Democratic donors, shifting to full excuse-making mode:
“[The President] had so many hopes and plans for things he wanted to do, but every time you turned around, he had to address the problems of the moment,” Biden told a crowd at a private Democratic National Committee fundraiser, according to CNN.
“He’s just had so many things thrown his way,” she said. “Who would have ever thought about what happened [with the Supreme Court overturning] Roe v. Wade? Well, maybe we saw it coming, but still we didn’t believe it. The gun violence in this country is absolutely appalling. We didn’t see the war in Ukraine coming.”
Pause briefly and contemplate what Jill Biden — excuse me, Dr. Jill Biden — contends was unforeseeable:
- A concerted, longtime effort by conservative legal scholars and Republican lawmakers to overturn Roe v. Wade.
- A continued pattern of angry, disturbed young men obtaining firearms and committing mass shootings.
- Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe.
Not only were all of those factors in American or global life foreseeable, all of them were problems that candidate Biden pledged he could resolve.
- On October 5, 2019, Biden pledged that, “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and we must fight any and all attempts to overturn it. As president, I will codify Roe into law and ensure this choice remains between a woman and her doctor.”
- As a candidate, Biden pledged to enact a national gun-buyback program, an assault-weapons ban, universal background checks, a push for the development of “smart guns,” and red-flag laws. His campaign platform declared that, “It’s within our grasp to end our gun violence epidemic and respect the Second Amendment, which is limited.” Much of that agenda remains unfulfilled.
- Also in October 2019, Biden pledged, “Putin knows, if I am President of the United States, his days of tyranny and trying to intimidate the United States and those in Eastern Europe are over.”
Jill Biden’s insistence that all of these problems were unforeseeable is reminiscent of Biden’s snapping that he and his team would have had to be “mind-readers” to notice the baby-formula shortage before May, even though the story was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in January.
You can be a steadfast, right-of-center critic of Joe Biden and simultaneously cringe at the sight of the president of the United States getting sand kicked in his face by a murderous Saudi prince, and the president’s wife insisting that long-simmering national and international problems sprung up out of nowhere. It’s embarrassing for us as Americans to watch our president going hat in hand to a regime he previously pledged to make a “pariah,” see him give MBS a giant geopolitical public-relations win in exchange for vague promises, and then watch the Saudis call our president a liar after the visit ends. We’re not respected. No one fears crossing Joe Biden. It’s a dangerous world, and a lot of other countries think that we’re led by a geriatric pushover.
Besides the problems of the president’s age and longstanding flaws, the solutions to most of these problems don’t align well with the progressive agenda.
If you want gas prices to come down and to be less dependent upon Saudi goodwill, you need to increase supply through more domestic production and domestic refinery capacity. Someday, electric vehicles will reduce the demand for refined gasoline, but electric vehicles are just four percent of new cars sold in the U.S. right now. Biden loves to talk about infrastructure projects, but he rarely mentions that in the construction sector, 98 percent of all energy use comes from diesel. America can’t have the things Biden wants without cheap, or at least reasonably priced, diesel and unleaded gasoline. Everything else is just pushing a rope.
With nearly 400 million guns in Americans’ hands, it will rarely be difficult for disturbed, angry young men to obtain a firearm; stopping the bloody trend requires effective mental-health treatment for all those disturbed, angry young men. (It would also help if parents could be clear-eyed about their sons’ glaringly obvious mental-health problems and not sponsor their sons’ applications for gun-owner licenses, as in the case of the Highland Park shooter.) Red-flag laws can help, but as my friend Cam observes, in almost all cases, there’s no follow-up mental-health assessment or treatment after the seizure of the firearms. The state removes the firearms from the person who may have intent to harm themselves or others, and then wipes its hands and concludes its work is done. But the suicidal or murderous intent is still there, unaddressed and untreated.
If you want to beat Vladimir Putin, arms transfers to Ukraine help, but they’re unlikely to be enough by themselves, particularly when it’s clear that Russia wants to use energy exports as leverage against our NATO allies in Europe. As our Andrew Stuttaford warns, “If the war in Ukraine is still dragging on into the winter months — as seems reasonably likely — it would make sense for Putin to use a brutal energy squeeze to spur the EU to force Ukraine to cut some grubby deal with Moscow.”
To avoid that, the U.S. (and Canada) would have to move to replace Russia’s role as energy supplier of Europe. That would require exporting more natural gas and fossil fuels, which would antagonize Biden’s environmentalist allies.
Over in the magazine, Dan McLaughlin has an excellent piece about how the seemingly quiet mid-Obama years, and the 2012 presidential election in particular, represented a turning point in our political life. You should read the whole thing, but one of the key points is that, “In short, where prior campaigns won the center, Obama appeared to move the center in his direction by using superior base turnout as a substitute for swing voters. Before 2012, this was the progressive dream; after 2012, it became Democratic dogma.”
A lot of campaigns since then have concluded that, “We may be losing those mushy independents and milquetoast center voters, but we’ll make up for it by driving up turnout in our base.” Right now, the Democrats think they can mitigate the expected Republican wave in the midterms by pleasing their progressive base as much as possible: relentless messaging on abortion, gun control, the January 6 committee’s findings, perhaps forgiving large portions of student-loan debt, and likely a futile push for some version of Build Back Better.
Biden is trying to run the Obama playbook in dramatically different circumstances. It’s not likely to work.
The thing is, those allegedly mushy independents and milquetoast center voters usually have some common sense, and they know what they want: They want the government to just do its job and make life manageable. That means getting inflation under control, particularly gas prices and food prices. They’d like to see their 401(k) and retirement savings growing instead of shrinking. They want to see more cops on the streets and less crime, a secure border, and good public schools that prepare their kids for college and the working world.
Oh, and as of this writing, President Biden has no public events on his schedule.