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What Joe Biden Didn’t Do
In times of crisis and uncertainty, healthy leadership is critical. Here are 20 simple thoughts on this president's response to the Russian rebellion—and what could have been
As Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenary forces headed toward Moscow Saturday in an armed rebellion—a moment of great uncertainty about the future of Vladimir Putin and Russia—here’s what President Joe Biden didn’t do. (It’s a reminder of how different the response could have been if someone else was in the White House.)
He didn’t interfere in Russia’s internal conflict or communicate that he was picking sides. (In fact, in calls with U.S. allies, Biden emphasized that it was imperative that Putin could not credibly claim Western interference.)
He didn’t share U.S. intelligence with Putin about the likely coup attempt, even after Putin called the mutiny “a stab in the back” and “treason.”
He didn’t cause most Americans to worry how he might exacerbate, accelerate or otherwise make a chaotic situation more complicated in order to grab more attention for himself.
He didn’t impulsively jump on Twitter or any other social media platform to praise Putin.
He didn’t exploit the moment to criticize Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine, in an effort to strengthen his alliance with Putin and the Kremlin.
He didn’t call Zelensky and threaten to cut support if he didn’t do him a favor. (Quite the contrary, he underlined the commitment in his call on Sunday.)
He didn’t attack NATO and question its future, nor did he blame the Western alliance for pushing Putin to invade Ukraine.
He didn’t ignore the experts or publicly undermine America’s allies or partners.
He didn’t insist that he alone could fix it.
He didn’t ignore the generals, skip his daily intel briefings, claim he knew better—or call the generals “my generals.”
He didn’t make a speech promising he could end the war in a day.
He didn’t exploit the moment to attack political opponents who have praised Putin or who have questioned the expense of supporting Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign nation or its commitment to democracy.
He didn’t make up any new nicknames for his critics.
He didn’t call the fact that Prigozhin founded, funded and managed an internet troll farm to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election a hoax.
He didn’t send love letters to the brutal Wagner boss (à la Kim Jong Un), uninterested in hiding his admiration for the strongman’s murderous ways.
He didn’t try to get a piece of the action, paid out from Wagner’s African diamond mine booty or the Kremlin, and then claim he believes in America first.
He didn’t leave us to wake up and wonder in the days and weeks ahead what new horror might he incite, what new enemy might he make, what new dictator might he befriend.
He didn’t make us feel like hostages in the backseat of a car driven by a mad drunkard, wondering if we’d get out alive.
He didn’t humiliate us on the world stage.
He didn’t claim to have done more than any other president, because he is secure in himself and too focused on his job to gloat.
Amid the public silence, President Biden demonstrated leadership. Unlike his malignantly narcissistic predecessor, he didn’t need to act with bombast or bluster to prove his power or ensure that he remained the center of attention. He understood this would be a time fraught with uncertainty—including now that Prigozhin has agreed to go into exile in Belarus—and therefore not a time to speak out. By using the moment to talk with key allies and partners, he both underscored American priorities and intentions and made clear whose side America is on—so critical in the often binary reality of war.
In the coming months, besides Donald Trump, a variety of other politicians will display their leadership style, values and tactics. We have already seen this will include a new crop of bullies and narcissists (did anyone say DeSantis or the GOP’s new spoiler, RFK Jr?), cowardly men portraying themselves as strongmen, and a parade of GOP actors convinced that acting tough and pushing policies defined by cruelty is somehow a winning strategy.
That may pump up some of the candidates as they double down on election denialism and other lies to curry favor with Republican primary voters. But let’s not doubt that most Americans—exhausted by the Trump era—will prefer honesty, stability and healthy leadership.
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