Panetta’s assessment of Biden’s first days

President Joe Biden
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Joe Biden is off to an auspicious start with passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID Relief bill, has made excellent appointments, and generally has struck the right tone. Now is when trouble is likely.

That’s not just the view of a hack pundit. It’s that of a man intimately familiar with the rhythms of governance and the presidency: Leon Panetta.

He doesn’t quite get the wise man awe the establishment accords former top Republican, Jim Baker. But Panetta’s credentials are as impressive: former White House chief of staff, three top cabinet posts, and — unlike Baker — Panetta won elections: eight to Congress from California.

“It’s a strong start when you pass a major piece of legislation in the beginning of an administration,” he told me during a recent half-hour phone conversation. “It conveys a clear message that the president knows what he wants to do and is focused on getting things done.”

One caveat — mine, not Panetta’s — is that Biden is getting credit for going “big and bold,” which he did, but it’s supposedly in contrast to Barack Obama’s 2009 more timid approach in the financial crisis. That’s false history; Obama, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, sought more than $800 billion, but had to scale back a little as there weren’t the votes in the Senate. Obama could have gotten a bigger package by adding tax cuts to help the well-to-do; he smartly rejected that.

Panetta — who started in politics as a Republican, switching over civil rights a half century ago — doesn’t warn of troubled waters because of anything Biden has done; it’s that presidential honeymoons always have a shelf life. The president’s job approval today is similar to three of his four most recent predecessors, who then saw a decline in ensuing months. Donald Trump started fairly low and stayed there.

Panetta cautions Biden of danger: “He can’t let the important focus on COVID and the economy so consume him that he’s not tending to other responsibilities.” As a freshman House member, he worried President Carter did that on energy.

The border, with increasing numbers of migrants, already is a huge problem; Panetta thinks it foolish to get into a debate over whether this is a crisis: “This demands putting immediate resources there” — more administrative judges and facilities.

“Joe has to show he’s tough and competent; the last damn thing you want is to be on the defensive.” Panetta recommends Biden “make use of his world leader mantle” and go himself to Mexico, meet with leaders there to thrash out solutions.

Panetta knows subsequent legislation will be harder. He urges the president to go big on infrastructure: “He should go out of his way to make it bi-partisan; if the Republicans give him a hard time, tell them to go to hell. But make the effort.”

A former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Panetta raises the possibility of a carbon tax, which is supported by prominent Republicans like Jim Baker and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and would help in addressing climate change.

On foreign policy, China obviously is a priority. Panetta says the initial meeting between top diplomats was not a surprise: the way dogs sniff each other, both sides “circled and checked each other out. Now it’s time to get serious.”

The difficult trick is to walk — and chew gum.

The former Defense chief and CIA director believes: “We have to combine getting tough on Taiwan and Hong Kong and the South China Sea — and try to work with them on Korea, climate and trade.”

Asked if it was smart for Biden to describe Russia’s Putin a “killer,” he gets diplomatic: “As a former White House chief, presidents sometimes say what they say.” He praises Biden for making it clear Russia and the U.S. “are adversaries and we’ll deal with them through strength.”

In these months ahead, the administration inevitably will face an unforeseen crisis: Panetta said, “As CIA director, what I worried about the most was what I didn’t know and what could surprise me.”

Panetta’s very pleased with most Biden appointments, especially those in jobs he held: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “already is doing a very good job,” he said. The new CIA director, veteran diplomat Bill Burns, “is perfect, the right choice for the right job; he will restore morale” at the agency.

The propensity of a new administration is to assemble what the president considers a top-flight cabinet and “then just bring them in for photo-ops.” Biden, Panetta notes, “has a good team and should work with them.”

The president’s long Washington experience is a strong asset, though Panetta notes, “When you’ve been in Washington for more than 40 years, you’re not always on top of changing dynamics — and they are constantly changing.”

Panetta argues Biden should hold regular press conferences — Biden held his first last Thursday after more than nine weeks, and acquitted himself better than the media did — not to please preening reporters, but for his own good. “Preparing for those questions and his responses makes a president much more aware of the spectrum of issues out there, some of which he hasn’t paid much attention to.”

“The great danger for a president,” the wise man notes, “is the tendency to be isolated.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags American economy Barack Obama Biden Cabinet picks Biden COVID-19 relief package biden first 100 days Biden foreign policy Biden press conference Bill Burns China Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Biden administration Leon Panetta Lloyd Austin Nancy Pelosi Russia sustainable infrastructure plan

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