Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Biden’s Long Game and His Short Game

As his European trip gets underway and his infrastructure bill stalls, the president remains aloof about how he intends to achieve some of his big goals.
June 10, 2021
Featured Image
President Joe Biden waves upon arrival at Cornwall Airport Newquay, on June 9, 2021 near Newquay, Cornwall, England. On June 11, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will host the Group of Seven leaders at a three-day summit in Cornwall, as the wealthiest nations look to chart a course for recovery from the global pandemic. (Photo by Phil Noble - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

President Biden left for his first overseas trip on Wednesday morning, apparently without a care in the world—other than having a cicada land on him as he spoke with a pool of reporters at Joint Base Andrews prior to his departure.

“Watch out for the cicadas,” he said, slapping his neck. “I just got one—it just got me.”

Then he was off to Europe for a series of summits and meetings—with the G7, with NATO, and with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia. He faces a monumental task convincing them that despite the last four years of insanity in the United States, our government can still be trusted.

As President Biden took to the air, his administration announced that it struck a deal with Pfizer for the United States to purchase and provide 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to 100 countries during the next two years.

The goodwill this represents is inestimable. If indeed actions speak louder than words, Biden enters the G7 having to say very little. That’s in direct contrast to his immediate predecessor who often said a lot that antagonized our allies, and took little action to endear the United States to them.

Biden’s actions show he’s learned something as a politician for the last half century. It also shows he’s good at playing the long game. His move in providing vaccines to the world will provide goodwill dividends for years—especially if the United States is remembered as the country that helped save the world from a pandemic. That is no small matter.

But Biden also faces other challenges. He must convince our allies that we will work together to challenge China and Russia. In regard to China, he also announced as he headed to Europe that he signed an executive order that enables the United States to take strong steps to protect Americans’ sensitive data, provides criteria for identifying software that may pose a risk, and addresses potential threats from certain foreign-made or -controlled apps. The executive order specifically names China as one of the foreign adversaries whose actions in this area demand close monitoring.

As for Russia, Biden will meet with Putin on June 16, exactly twenty years to the day after another U.S. president said of Putin “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” That meeting will perhaps be Biden’s greatest challenge on this trip, and it was telling that on Tuesday Press Secretary Jen Psaki seemed unaware of a development that could be important at the summit. A reporter asked her whether the White House had any comment about the head of the Russian space agency “threatening to pull out of the International Space Station unless the United States lift sanctions against two companies that are related to the space station.”

Psaki had no comment. “That’s a really interesting question and I didn’t know much about it before you asked this question, so I’ll probably have to talk to our national security team.”

While it may indicate that Biden could be blindsided by events going into the summit, it may also speak to how his communications team is outside of the loop. Psaki tells us what she knows, and often can’t answer questions because she isn’t in the president’s inner circle and doesn’t know. That is part of Biden’s strategy as well. He is intentionally aloof and remains enigmatic about some big policy goals and how he intends to achieve them. Nothing demonstrates that more than how he has attempted to get an infrastructure deal passed through Congress. He’s described it as a once-in-a-generation need, and his administration has continued to make the case—as when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Monday delivered an impassioned plea for investing in the bill from a bridge with a cracked steel beam.

But talks with the GOP remained stuck, so on Tuesday, President Biden ended negotiations. Some in the GOP snickered that it was a withering blow to deliver to Biden as he departed the United States for the G7 meeting—and indeed, the headlines and chyrons (“Biden Departs for First Foreign Trip as U.S. Agenda Stalls,” said CNN’s) were not especially encouraging. Psaki recounted a message Biden conveyed to Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who was leading a group of Republicans in negotiations on the bill: “He offered his gratitude to her for her efforts and good faith conversations, but expressed his disappointment that, while he was willing to reduce his plan by more than $1 trillion, the Republican group had increased their proposed new investments by only $150 billion.” In the same statement, Biden urged others to continue the quest for a bipartisan solution.

While some in his own party are criticizing Biden for not moving more quickly and aggressively, Biden knows there is no downside to taking his time—since he can get the legislation he wants via reconciliation. The GOP would like nothing better, so Republican candidates in the midterm can complain how the Democrats forced the passage of a big bill Americans didn’t want or need. They’ll scream about the price tag and dismiss it as pork-barrel legislation.

But it is the GOP that has miscalculated.

Biden and the Democrats will pass legislation most Americans want, it will provide real solutions to real problems and help modernize our infrastructure. The Democrats will campaign on that. The only real gamble for Biden is when does he pull the trigger? He’s proceeding, as Psaki said in her Tuesday statement, on “multiple paths,” but he needs to have the legislation in place, the money allocated, and some tangible results in time to be useful in the midterms. His preferred timeline—he says he wants his tax reform and economic priorities on the Senate floor in July—thus makes a great deal of sense.


One area where Biden’s aloofness and distance may harm him is in the latest actions by Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice. The White House was reportedly blindsided by the DOJ’s announcement that it will continue to defend former President Donald Trump in a defamation lawsuit. CBS reporter Weijia Jiang asked Psaki about that Tuesday. The press secretary had a hard time answering the question, which left me wondering. So I asked:

“But does it upset him?”

“Does it—I think the president has been pretty clear, as Weijia started her comment conveying, about his view about the pres—his view about his predecessor’s comments, about his predecessor’s language, and about his predecessor’s approach, and his engagement in that regard.”

“So what can he do? What can he do about it?” I pressed.

Psaki couldn’t answer. “I don’t think I have anything more to speak to you on, Brian—on active litigation.”

There may be nothing that President Biden can or should do about the DOJ decision to defend Trump. But it is worth noting that his administration is wildly inconsistent in communicating what is going on. Biden has been on top of his game issuing executive orders and international initiatives ahead of his first foreign trip, but the White House has repeatedly seemed stymied by unanticipated events and surprised by actions even within the administration.

President Biden will have to have both the long and short game at his disposal on this round in Europe—and he’ll need to worry about more than the cicadas.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.