Biden hopes Pentagon visit prolongs military goodwill

Joe Biden
UPI Photo

When Joe Biden was vice president, he asked his aides to include a vital piece of information for him every day in his briefing book: He wanted to know the exact number of service members who died.

Each day — with casualties rising in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere —the number was placed on a small card that he would carry in his suit pocket.

“ ‘These are souls who aren’t with us anymore,’ ” Biden would tell his aides. “ ‘I don’t want a rounded number. I want the exact number every single day.’ ”

When Biden makes his first trip as commander in chief to the Pentagon on Wednesday, it will be an immensely personal one for him, longtime aides and advisers say. 

They say he will be seeking to restore trust among national security personnel following what they describe as years of tumult under former President Trump.

And they point out that Biden comes to the job as a military father. The president knows what it’s like to have a son deployed, and also knows the pain of losing a spouse and a child.

“He’ll be listening to the generals and not otherwise and he will not use the military as a prop,” said a longtime adviser seeking to draw a contrast with Trump.

Biden last week went to the State Department. Now, the adviser said, he’s going to the Pentagon to send the message that diplomacy is back, and so is “respect for our military and service members.”

“He’s got to encapsulate both,” the adviser said.

The visit comes as the Senate considers Trump’s impeachment and as Biden seeks some distance from that trial. The White House has sought to portray a president focused on the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden is expected to meet with senior civilian and uniformed leaders at the Pentagon, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first African American to lead the Pentagon, and his newly confirmed deputy, Kathleen Hicks, the first woman to hold such a role. He’ll also speak directly to the workforce.

Biden has already made a handful of defense policy moves, including undoing Trump’s ban on most transgender people serving in the military and ending U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen. Austin has also ordered a pause of operations to address extremism within the military ranks.

While Biden is a known quantity among service members due to his prior time in government, the visit will represent an opportunity for personnel to get a feel for the new commander in chief.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of questions like, ‘Is he going to be like Obama?’ ” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia under former President Obama. “There’s probably a sense among the service members that Obama was cautious, and there may be some questions about what his approach will be.”

Farkas also argued that service members will look for Biden to bring an end to the “uncertainty and the unpredictability” of the Trump administration’s handling of defense policy decisions.

Military officials were caught off guard by Trump’s decision last year to significantly cut the number of U.S. troops in Germany, which was met with resistance in Congress. Biden halted plans for the withdrawal last week in his remarks at the State Department.

Still, there was plenty of support for Trump in the armed forces.

“I think there were ups and down in the relationship with the military and President Trump,” said Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general and director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, noting that service members responded well to Trump’s decision early on to give commanders more autonomy as well as his effort to speak frankly and without concern for political correctness.

Spoehr described the current moment as a “honeymoon period” where service members will try to figure Biden out, noting that the president’s talk about his deceased son Beau Biden, who was a major in the Delaware Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq, plays well with the military.

During the presidential race, Biden’s campaign seized on poll numbers, including one survey by The Military Times, that showed U.S. troops favored Biden. The poll, issued a month before the election, showed that 43 percent of active-duty members of the military said they would vote for Biden while 37 percent said they were voting for Trump.

“By the end, Biden was getting a plurality of military and it was even stronger with officers,” a senior adviser to Biden recalled on Tuesday. The adviser attributed Biden’s success to “the fact that they knew him as an experienced guy who was a moderate and not a radical.”

Veteran voters typically lean conservative, and New York Times exit polls show that Trump won 54 percent of the military vote compared with Biden’s 44 percent, a margin slimmer than Trump’s victory among this group in 2016.

Daniel Cox, a research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, said Biden may succeed in winning over military voters by focusing on issues they care about, such as strengthening support services for veterans and fixing the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“One of the things that we’ve learned, and I think that’s not surprising, is this is a group that often feels overlooked,” Cox said. “I think this group understandably wants their government to be looking out for their interests.”

Biden faces decisions on Afghanistan and Iran and on confronting China and Russia. He also must balance these issues with addressing the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

“All of those converging crises need to be handled simultaneously and deftly by President Biden,” Farkas said. “This is almost like a wartime president because these are also acute and urgent.”

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Kathleen Hicks Lloyd Austin president joe biden military policy relationship pentagon former president donald trump transparency barack obama

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