Being president means expecting the unexpected

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In an era when norms are often cast aside, one cardinal rule of the presidency remains intact: expect the unexpected. That rule is being vindicated once more. On Election Day 2020, few expected Russia to invade Ukraine and begin the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II.

But the war is here, and President Biden is dealing with an issue most Americans believed had been resolved by the norms established on the European continent since 1945. How Biden measures up, and what the political implications for his presidency are, remain unclear. But as John F. Kennedy reportedly said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “I guess this is the week that I earn my salary.” Biden is certainly earning his. 

Three of Biden’s predecessors – George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump – illustrate how presidents cope with unanticipated crises. But for each, the political ramifications were quite different. In George H. W. Bush’s case, the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union were wholly unexpected. In 1988, voters did not expect that either of these events were looming on the horizon. But when they occurred, they presented a whole new set of challenges. Like Biden, Bush’s extensive foreign policy resume made him especially well-suited to this task. And historians (notably Jon Meacham in his impressive Bush biography) have come to a renewed appreciation of the 41st president.

But Bush’s impressive performance had little resonance with voters. Campaigning for reelection in 1992, Bush’s Republican Party took pride in displaying large slabs of the Berlin Wall at its Houston Convention, with Bush proudly proclaiming, “This convention is the first at which an American president can say the Cold War is over, and freedom finished first.”

But sensing he was going to lose, Bush plaintively asked voters: “I hope every Mother and Dad out there says, ‘Hey, we ought to give this president a little credit out there for the fact that our little kids don’t worry so much about nuclear war.’ Isn’t that important?” It was important, but voters were focused on the post-Cold War economic challenges at home. As one employee at the Groton, Connecticut, submarine shipyard put it, “We won the Cold War and now they’re saying here’s a pink slip.” Too many pink slips guaranteed Bush’s defeat. 

In a similar way voters in 2000 did not contemplate a devastating terrorist attack on their homeland. That year, Al Gore proposed a “lockbox” for Social Security, while George W. Bush advocated that the U.S. should be a more “humble nation.” But 9/11 created a “new normal.” Americans were alarmed by the 9/11 attacks, and seeking reelection in 2004, Bush donned the role of the nation’s chief safety officer, arguing he was best suited to deal with Osama bin Laden and the “wolves” prowling the world seeking destruction at home and abroad. Back then, the full effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars had not yet manifested themselves, and that year Bush won a majority of the popular vote — something no Republican has managed to do since. 

In 2020, Donald Trump faced an unexpected pandemic. The worldwide spread of COVID-19 caught Trump flatfooted. Overnight, the U.S. economy shut down, schools closed and people shuttered themselves indoors. Americans turned to their president for leadership. But Trump failed to meet the moment. Instead of facing the crisis head on, he created a world of illusions where the virus would suddenly “disappear,” asked if bleach could be used as a cure and ignored his health care advisers when it came to mask-wearing and other preventive measures.

While the Trump administration accelerated the creation of vaccines to deal with COVID-19 in record time, Trump pooh-poohed making them mandatory and turned vaccine mandates into a new cultural divide. Of those voters naming the coronavirus as their most important issue in 2020, 81 percent voted for Joe Biden; only 15 percent backed Trump. Trump’s ham-handedness at coping with the unexpected ensured his defeat.

Today, Joe Biden is dealing with the unexpected, and like the first President Bush, his resume is well-suited to managing the crisis at hand. But Biden’s political fortunes remain unclear. The crisis has helped raise the price of a gallon of gasoline, with Biden calling it “Putin’s price hike.” But while 63 percent of Americans claim they are willing to pay extra to support Ukraine, the signage at every gas station has become its own advertisement to vote Republican in November. And unlike the end of the Cold War or 9/11, the crisis has done nothing to dismantle the partisan divide: 69 percent of Democrats back Biden’s handling of Ukraine; 67 percent of Republicans don’t.  

When Americans voted for Biden in 2020, they hoped for a respite from the chaos of the Trump years. But history never takes a holiday, especially in the 21st century. Expecting the unexpected remains a cardinal rule for the presidency, and how presidents measure up often determines their place in history.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags 9/11 Al Gore COVID-19 Donald Trump George HW Bush George W Bush Iraq War Joe Biden Presidents of the United States Russia-Ukraine war

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