On to the Next Presidency

Thoughts in and around geopolitics.

By: George Friedman

It’s now clear that Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. 

There are many who believe he stole the election, but then post-election allegations of corruption are commonplace. 

There are those who believe George W. Bush stole the 2000 election, which was decided by a Supreme Court whose majority was selected by Republican presidents. Some Democrats called it a Republican coup. 

John F. Kennedy won his election against Richard Nixon by what many charged was the graveyard vote in Chicago. I can name many more, valid or not. As Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under heaven.

The only difference is in our memories. We forget what was and believe that nothing so terrible ever existed before. Yeah, it did. John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson are still duking it out in the afterlife over who stole the election of 1824. 

I am pretty sure it was rigged. The country survives corruption and the claim of corruption all the time. Perhaps the illusion that the battle is unprecedented moves us along. 

I find it charming that we can think this is the time that tries men’s souls. Our trials may try our sense of perspective, but not our souls.

But it is time to move on to a Biden presidency. It is an exciting time for all the Democrats who have worked closely with him as they jockey for jobs in the administration. 

Since most jobs in government are painful at best, with little power and enemies stalking you at all times, the eagerness to serve is admirable. But what truly entices them is the idea that they will have power. 

It is an interesting idea, since even the president has little power. Certainly, he can demand an outstanding tee time and get really cool acts at the inaugural ball, but the ability to shape the country, let alone the world, is elusive. The world shapes the president, not the other way around.

Biden is coming into office with plans and principles in which the world blesses him for his wisdom and the public for his lightening the burden they are suffering from. Every new president looks at Mount Rushmore to see if there is any room left for them. 

They forget that Washington had to cope with the Whiskey Rebellion, Jefferson with the French, Lincoln with the Civil War and Teddy Roosevelt with robber barons gone wild. They did OK, but they did not set the agenda for the presidency. Reality set the agenda, and they served it.

Donald Trump likewise came into the presidency with many plans. He had not planned on COVID-19, a disease that came to define his administration. Barack Obama planned to dramatically change the relationship with the Islamic world and end the wars raging in the region. 

He didn’t manage to make much headway – and even started another war with Libya. George W. Bush never imagined that his presidency would involve invading Afghanistan and Iraq after an inconceivable suicide attack. Undoubtedly Bill Clinton did not expect to go to war over Kosovo. 

As for George H.W. Bush, the idea that he would deal with the collapse of communism, followed by a full-scale war with Iraq over Kuwait, would have cracked him up had someone mentioned it as a possibility.

The last five presidents before Biden, just like the heads on Rushmore and all the rest of this curious breed, took office with the promise and the belief that they could preside over a country that was peaceful and prosperous. 

And they all had plans for making it this way. Some succeeded, but it was rarely because the world in which they expected to govern would be anything like the world they faced. Reality always ruthlessly redefined their plans.

We know some things we think will shape the Biden presidency. About half the country is hostile to him, and half of those believe he stole the election. The COVID-19 crisis will subside as vaccinations come to market, but the economy will still be deeply strained. 

We do not know whether the end of the pandemic will change the economy for better or worse. 

We know that the rest of the world believes that the end of the Trump administration will create a new world in which only good things will happen, and it’ll be shocked when it encounters the same old world.

Presidents can’t account for the unexpected – a pandemic, the intractability of events that should be tractable, the terrorist attack, the random war, the collapse of communism. 

Each of these defined a recent presidency, and each of these left the endless briefing books and slide decks awaiting their insertion in the useless hall of fame.

The election is over, but the mutual recriminations and rage continue. So far we are on course. A president committed to doing only good things and avoiding bad things has been elected. Check. 

He has a set of problems he will solve. Got it. 

And he hopes to be the first president whose intentions will align with reality throughout his term. 

Houston, we have a problem.

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