Biden praised as the non-Trump, but will Putin outfox him on world stage?
Biden will need to do more than just show he is not Trump
President Biden is drawing all kinds of media praise for his European trip, for saying, as he did yesterday, that the ties that bind NATO nations are a "sacred obligation."
That would be unremarkable—it’s been American policy since 1949—but since Donald Trump had challenged the notion that an attack on any member is an attack on all, it’s been met with a global sigh of relief.
And that has been the subtext for nearly all the coverage. A Politico headline—"Biden Flourishes in Trump’s Absence from the World Stage"—made clear that as long as the new president didn’t fall off the stage, he’d get standing ovations.
As MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, more focused on 45 than 46, put it, this is "the first trip abroad by the president who comes after the president who saw zero value in our friends and allies and delighted in pandering to the world's most heinous dictators."
Trump, for his part, says of course Biden is being welcomed as part of the club, because he won’t challenge our allies on trade or paying their fair share of defense costs. But the press remembers his approach to foreign policy more for insulting Justin Trudeau or angering Angela Merkel, not to mention his mutual admiration society with Vladimir Putin.
To be sure, Biden has deftly managed the international politics, such as communiques that call out China as well as Russia, and the agreement on sending other countries a billion doses of the Pfizer vaccine. After a half-century in the Senate and as vice president, he knows how to play this game.
At the same time, he had a serious stumble at a Sunday press conference, conflating Libya and Syria three different times in a rambling answer. The fact is, he’s 78, he’s on a whirlwind schedule and he made a mistake. While the right is in see-he’s-lost-it mode, there’s no sign that Biden doesn’t understand the nuances of the two countries. He’s just always been erratic as an extemporaneous speaker.
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The thing about these summit meetings is that the press focuses more on the personalities than the policies. And it’s not clear, beyond the nice-sounding declarations, how much the United States and its allies will actually change their policies once everyone goes back home.
The journalistic buildup to Biden’s sitdown with Putin in Switzerland tomorrow suggests the same approach will apply. The lack of any precooked deals means not much of substance will be accomplished. Biden will be judged on the appearance of whether he got tough with the Russian leader who he once said he no soul.
The president himself admitted that he didn’t want a side-by-side presser after the meeting because he doesn’t want to be judged by the optics: "This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference to try to embarrass each other…I don't want to get into being diverted by, ‘Did they shake hands? Who talked the most?’"
That doesn’t sound like someone who’s confident he could outperform the former KGB agent, or doesn’t see the point in trying.
Meanwhile, someone with no such qualms—Putin--submitted to an extraordinarily confrontational interview with NBC correspondent Keir Simmons. The British journalist was extraordinarily tenacious as he repeatedly pressed Putin and, amid the evasions and denials, accused him of whataboutism.
Simmons asked if he would pledge no further military action against Ukraine. Putin changed the subject to NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.
Simmons asked whether opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who survived a poisoning attempt, would get out of prison alive. "Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president," Putin claimed, as if anything of significance happens in Russia without his approval. Simmons then called him out for refusing to use Navalny’s name.
Simmons asked point-blank if he was a killer. Putin deflected the question. Simmons asked if it was a coincidence that a number of Kremlin critics had been killed. Putin said assassinations were not their "habit."
He later said "we have been accused of all kinds of things. Election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations." And, in yet another deflection, he said such allegations came from a Hollywood-inspired "macho" culture (this from a guy who was photographed horseback riding while shirtless).
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The larger question is why Putin allowed such an interrogation, which no Russian journalist would be permitted to conduct. He said something about reaching NBC’s viewers, but as essentially president for life, he’s never shown much regard for western public opinion. Maybe, after the change in administrations, that’s changing.
Biden, trying to stay on message, limits his contacts with the press, but has held several news conferences on this trip. The most important will be the post-Putin session, as well as any results he can show, looking toward the day when not being Trump is no longer enough.