President Joe Biden’s address to Congress focused rather heavily on domestic matters, particularly his $2.3 trillion “infrastructure” package. We didn’t hear much about foreign affairs. That’s because he’s put them on the backburner to press forward with his “transformative,” and unprecedentedly expensive, domestic agenda.
We’ve seen this approach to governing before — from Lyndon Johnson, arguably one of the nation’s least successful modern presidents.
It’s a path that doesn’t seem to be working out too well for Biden, either. As his first 100 days draw to an end, he is polling poorly with almost half the electorate, despite an obsequious press lauding his every move. If Biden wants to avoid the race for the bottom in presidential rankings, he will have to rethink his approach to both domestic and foreign challenges and, just as importantly, how he balances both.
Thus far, the White House has pressed an agenda to radically remake America. Federalizing elections, expanding the welfare state, and massively expanding the size, reach, and authority of the federal government are just the tip of the iceberg.
Meanwhile, major foreign policy problems have gotten short shrift. While the administration has been heavy on globalist rhetoric, its actions have been limited pretty much to reversing Trump policies on climate change and the Iran Deal.
A recent example of this lackluster foreign policy is the U.S. response to Russia’s massive military build-up near Ukraine. Finger-waving and the lame promise of a convening a summit to talk things over won’t keep the Russian bear at bay.
Clearly, rather than deal with foreign threats, the president wishes to concentrate on jamming through the most radical domestic agenda in modern history.
In this, history repeats. After his unexpected elevation to the Oval Office, Lyndon Johnson put together his Great Society agenda, an ambitious splurge of federal spending and expansive bureaucracy meant to eliminate poverty and end racism.
To come up with the money needed to launch the Great Society, Johnson tried to relegate the Cold War to a second-tier issue. He sent a small number of troops to South Vietnam to keep the North Vietnamese at bay. But the main idea was to spend just enough on “guns” to avoid suffering a humiliating loss (as had happened to Truman when China went Communist under his watch), while funneling huge amounts of money into Great Society programs.
But the incremental approach in Vietnam failed to deter the North Vietnamese. The war just kept getting bigger, even as Johnson spent like a drunken sailor on his domestic agenda.
Meanwhile, the domestic economy went into a tailspin. By the 1970s, America was mired in “stagflation” — anemic economic growth paired with out-of-control inflation.
Worse, the Great Society proved to be anything but great. The pseudo-socialist experiment failed abysmally, leading to a sharp decline of race relations and the near collapse of American inner cities, as described well in Amity Shlaes’ “The Great Society: A New History” (2020).
Johnson’s term in the Oval Office left America angry, divided, and dissolute — weaker at home and disrespected abroad.
We shouldn’t assume it can’t happen again.
We live in an age of great power competition, one in which Russia and China are growing increasingly aggressive. Foreign policy cannot be put on hold in this environment. Yet when it comes to addressing these adversaries, Biden’s instinct seems to be to start with the minimalist, most passive position and work from there. So he scolds Russia, but immediately offers talks and demurs from sending U.S. ships into the Black Sea. In Afghanistan, he decides, against military advice, to pull out and hope for the best.
What if these tentative policies don’t work any better than LBJ’s tentative approach in Vietnam? Not wanting to be seen as weakling unable to stand up to an increasingly emboldened China, Russia, Iran and/or North Korea, the president will be forced to do a smidge more “over there,” to flex the muscle a bit harder to keep the bad guys in line.
The problem with this kind of creeping deterrence is that it cedes the initiative to the other side. They get to decide the pace of competition. They get to choose if they want to make Biden squirm by ratcheting the pressure up just a little more.
Meanwhile, Biden races blindly ahead with domestic policies that are increasingly proving divisive. Domestic discord and political violence are getting worse, not better. Like Johnson, Biden is proving more skilled at driving Americans apart than bringing them together, making our homeland a more troubled and unwelcoming place.
(James Jay Carafano is vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.)