Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega this week, and America is back. That's the message President Joe Biden has been advancing during his first trip abroad since taking the oath of office. Here he is on Sunday in Cornwall, England following the G7 summit.
President Joe Biden: I conveyed to each of my G7 counterparts that the United States is going to do our part. America is back at the table.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed, the Biden administration thus far has represented a meaningful return to an active, diplomatic, even muscular American presence in global affairs. Think about the 100-day mark. At that point, Foreign Policy Magazine talk with a diverse panel of experts who graded the Biden administration on its foreign policy.
Biden earned an A for restoring foreign alliances, an A-minus for his trade policy, and a B plus for his management of the global pandemic and his response to human rights issues. The only C marring Biden's international report card was awarded because "In the Middle East, it's not yet clear what being back will mean".
Something else is back, Joe Biden. Even a glimpse of the last few days makes it pretty obvious that Joe Biden is loving being president.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Biden's long public career has been marked by more than its share of tragedy, from the 1972 car crash that claimed the lives of his wife and infant daughter to the 2015 death of his beloved son, Beau Biden. Somehow, despite these gut-wrenching losses, Biden is not a tragic figure. Instead, he's resilient to the point of being, well, to quote Biden himself, "corny". Again, here's the president in Cornwall on Sunday.
President Joe Biden: I pointed out and I mean it sincerely, we're unique as a country. We're unique in a sense that we're not based on ethnicity or geography or religion, we're one nation that said, we organize on an idea. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal. Sounds corny, but it's real.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Classic Biden. Sure, he is the guru of gaff, and the remnant of a childhood stutter mean no one would describe him as eloquent, but when Joe Biden is in the groove, when he is having a good time, you just can't miss it.
Remember this moment back in 2010, when then-Vice President Biden introduced President Obama following passage of the sweeping Affordable Care Act. He got so caught up in the moment that Biden stage whispered a bleep bomb into an open mic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: My personal all-time favorite Joe Biden is having a great time moment, the 130 NAACP Annual Convention in Houston, Texas, way back in 2012. Not only did he walk on the stage with this classic track-
Melissa Harris-Perry: -but he then walked down memory lane, while acknowledging a former colleague from Delaware in the audience.
President Joe Biden: I went through the battle with Mouse. Mouse are you out there? Hey, Mouse, how are you doing, man? Mouse and I go back a long way to the days when I was a public defender even before that when the days as the only white employee in East Side. [chuckles] Remember, Mouse? By the way, Mouse got my back a bunch of times, but anyway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That is the Joe Biden who showed up this week in England and Brussels, patriotic, corny, personable. Even facing the considerable challenges of a global pandemic, climate change, economic upheaval, and Mideast uncertainty, Joe Biden is loving this international trip.
Need evidence? Lisa Desjardins of PBS NewsHour noted via Twitter on Monday, that, "In Brussels, Biden is running about two and a half hours late for his scheduled news conference at this point. Talks with foreign leaders all going long. It's a classic Biden trait".
Now, all of this has me thinking about the foundational political science study Presidential Character, written by James Barber back in 1972. In it, Barber offers a typology of modern American presidents, categorizing them as active or passive, positive or negative, and arguing that character, worldview, and style are important predictors of presidential success.
With Joe Biden showing all the signs of being an active, positive president on the world stage, what does this mean for America being back at the table? Joining me now is Nahal Toosi, Foreign Affairs Correspondent at Politico. Welcome back to The Takeaway.
Nahal Toosi: Hi there. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also joining me is Barbara Perry, Director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia Miller Center. Barbara, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Barbara Perry: Great to be with you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Barbara, I want to start with you. We were actually tweeting about this yesterday that we're going back in time to classic political science Barber fourfold table. Do you think that I am right in characterizing President Biden as being kind of an active, positive on the world stage right now, or do you see it differently?
Barbara Perry: Oh, absolutely. You're right on point, Melissa. Thank you for bringing up my most favorite book on the presidency. I read it as an undergrad, and I pulled it off my shelf yesterday. If you look at the late Professor Barber's description of the active, positive president, it's one of much activity and enjoyment of it. The way you just described Joe Biden abroad puts him right squarely in that category.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nahal, let me come to you on this because I'm wondering as I'm watching, and I'm thinking, "Ah, this guy seems like he's really, even with all the difficulty, enjoying this process, and I'm wondering what his international counterparts are feeling?" What has their reception of President Biden been?
Nahal Toosi: Well, you got to remember, it depends on who you're talking about. If you're China, and you're Russia, you may not be feeling the same thing as if you're France or Germany, but the allies are largely feeling a sense of relief.
This is a guy who's going to be nice to them. He's not going to beat up on them. He's not going to refuse to sign on to things like fighting climate change with them. Overall, it's relief. It's happiness that there's a better tone when it comes to US allies. Again, if you're China, or if you're Russia or certain other countries, you may not be that thrilled.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right. I take that point clearly. Barbara, let me come to you on this, because I think that's a lot of the transition that we've seen, particularly in his conversations in Brussels yesterday. I'm thinking of the fact that there President Biden was quoting an Irish poet and talking about how the world has utterly changed, and trying, again, to bring the US back to the table this time around, issues of trade with the EU. Is this kind of what Biden is describing as values-driven approach to international politics? Has this typically been successful, at least with the allies?
Barbara Perry: Oh, I think so, and I think that this is what disturbed people so much if they happen to be in the Biden camp in terms of internationalism and multilateralism and foreign affairs, that if you do look at that I think with an objective eye from World War II onward, with things like NATO, with these alliances, it's not America first, it's not walling ourselves in and being isolated. How did that work out for us in the 1920s? It really kept the peace.
I think most people would like to go back to that. I think that that's where Joe Biden is taking us and I think that's why the allies that we have in that part of the world are thrilled that we are back, and that there's some consistency now, I think, in what has been the approach from Democrats and Republicans from World War II's and onward to now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed, foreign policy, seems to me, Nahal, as one of the places that had not been so partisan politicized previously, that there had been a sense of, again, politics stopping at the water's edge, that there was some sense of enduring American interests, so talk to me about China within that perspective. What are some of, maybe perhaps, the consistencies between the Biden administration and the previous administration, the Trump administration, relative to China?
Nahal Toosi: Yes, that's a really good point. Oftentimes, when you think of Trump and Biden, you think, "Wow, they're just so incredibly different". Trump was, in so many ways, just wildly different than what the world expected from an American president from US foreign policy. He questioned everything from the existence of NATO to whether or not we can be really, really close with dictators and be completely fine with that.
It was everything from human rights to whatever, but China is one issue that is definitely consistent between the two. There is a general agreement on both sides, Republican and Democrat in Washington, that the Chinese pose the most significant geopolitical threat to the United States, as really exists.
China is such a fascinating issue because it covers every single topic you can think about. Everything from higher education to technology to flat out potential kinetic military issues around Taiwan. It's one of those things where the US just feels like the Chinese with their authoritarian model, in particular, that's the issue here.
To be clear, it's their governance system. It's their oppressive tactics. It's this behavior on a number of levels, their human rights abuses, all sorts of things that have really alarmed people in Washington.
That's why you see Biden, for now, keeping on the tariffs, keeping on the sanctions that President Trump laid on to China. Biden and Trump may have somewhat different aims when it comes to China, but overall, in terms of tactics, they're sticking to the same thing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the places where I think there's at least more discursive divergence, but also likely in policy is Russia. Can you maybe layout the Biden versus Trump Russia approach?
Nahal Toosi: Yes, when you look at it on a personal level, Trump himself really felt like he wanted to get along with Vladimir Putin, wanted to make it a personal relationship, did not believe or said he didn't believe the allegations that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. Now, Trump's administration, though, they did, over time, levy more sanctions on Russia, they did take a number of tough positions on Russia, largely because they were pushed by Congress, to some degree.
Biden has a very different point of view. Going back-- and I did research on this, going back to the beginning, within weeks of Vladimir Putin becoming acting president of Russia back in 2000, Biden was saying, "I don't really know about this guy. I'm not sure this guy is really a democrat in any sense," in small 'd' democracy. That has stayed consistent. He has, for 20 years, consistently said he doesn't really trust Putin. He isn't exactly sure whether democracy is possible when it comes to Putin.
Over time, Biden has felt that, but that being said, he knows Putin is someone that he's going to have to deal with and so that's why he is going to meet with him this week. We're going to see, I think, continued existing sanctions, but possibly even more sanctions on Russia going forward but a lot of it also depends on what Putin does.
President Joe Biden: It's a values-driven, high-standard, transparent financing mechanism we're going to provide and support projects in four key areas; climate, health, digital technology, and gender equity. We believe that will not only be good for the countries, but it'll be good for the entire world and represent values that our democracies represent.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to President Biden during his Sunday press conference, describing the Build Back Better World partnership, or as they're calling it, B3W. I'm going to come to you, Barbara, because as long as we're hanging out in old-fashioned political science, I was also thinking of John Aldridge asking that question about presidents and foreign affairs. Are presidents simply waltzing before a blind audience? All this work they're doing on the global stage but American voters, American citizens don't often pay a lot of attention. What is happening with Biden in terms of his attempts to message what he's doing globally back home?
Barbara Perry: Well, I'm going to add another political science wrinkle here and I know you'll know this book by the late Richard Neustadt, called Presidential Power. He famously said the power of the president is the power to persuade, first persuade the electorate to get elected, get nominated and get elected, and then think of all the constituencies to be convinced and persuaded by the president, including foreign leaders, but obviously, the people back home.
I think by pointing to these values, as you've just played this clip from Biden on health and technology, and gender equity, and climate. That's why he was elected. That's why he was nominated by his party and so he's not only trying to carry this through on the domestic stage, but on the world stage, and at least on the world stage.
First of all, he does have power of persuasion, and second, he also is able to act in some ways unilaterally, at least as compared to acting at home when he's got to deal with Congress and the Supreme Court, media, et cetera.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It seems to me, Barbara, that must be part of why it is sort of more fun for presidents to be doing the global work is they actually don't have to wait for a filibuster-proof policy. They can actually go sit down at the table, have those relationships, and I'm wondering in that if this will suggest that maybe given how tense things are in DC and unlikely to be different if Biden's going to really end up being a very externally focused president?
Barbara Perry: Well, I think he'll have to be both. As we saw with COVID, who would have known two years ago that that was going to have to be at the top of the agenda and that is at the top of the agenda at home and abroad? There'll be issues like that but I think you're absolutely right, Melissa, that all presidents prefer to deal-- unless it's in a wartime situation, or there's just a horrible foreign policy crisis, but even if there is a crisis, again, short of war, they get to act and sometimes even in war, they get to act rather unilaterally.
I think that's why a president's preferred. I think someone like Biden, who has this really interesting combination of both foreign affairs experience from his time in the Senate, his eight years as Vice President, but he also has this interesting character as part of the Barber approach, that he's like a mayor, an old Irish poll Mayor of Boston, or a North-eastern city.
He's got that personal touch, sometimes literally, and beyond the bounds of propriety these days but I think those combinations make him the perfect actor on the world stage, and obviously, at least at home getting elected on the domestic stage.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nahal, he may really need those personal touch retail politics strengths in his relationship with the new Prime Minister of Israel. He actually reached out. He called Naftali Bennett within hours, whereas it had taken him months to call Netanyahu. I'm wondering if you have insights on what this relationship may look like going forward?
Nahal Toosi: I think what we'll see change is probably more tone than substance. Naftali Bennett is probably further to the right than Benjamin Netanyahu was on a lot of issues, his new government is not going to support the Iran nuclear deal the same way Netanyahu didn't.
There are definitely going to be continued differences between the US and Israel, but I think the difference will be that Bennett and his people, his foreign minister, others aren't necessarily going to come and make a speech before Congress designed to humiliate the US presidents or take other steps that really, really emphasize these differences.
Probably try to do it more behind the scenes, privately, that sort of thing. Look, what we really have to also watch, though, is the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and how whatever happens with that, if it stays calm, or if it explodes again, how the government of Israel reacts and how the US reacts then as well.
It's weird, it's like there's these known unknowns. We know what to watch for but we don't know what's going to happen. That's why I would say it's more about tone than substance.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nahal, do that known unknown relative to Afghanistan with me. Has Biden been meeting resistance about the decision to remove US troops?
Nahal Toosi: From what I have read, it sounds like people are basically accepting it. He seems dead set on it and NATO and others are basically just trying to figure out how to leave alongside the US while keeping some form of security inside the country so that their embassies can continue running, that sort of thing.
I think you're probably going to see, at some point, US Air support of some kind for the Afghan army but that's going to require finding bases, probably, possibly even in Central Asia. There's a lot that, frankly, still needs to be worked out but the general idea that the US and NATO are going to be out, I think that's pretty much agreed to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Barbara, for our last question, I just want to ask you to do those unknown knowns in the domestic context a bit too. What are you looking for from President Biden over the course of the rest of this year?
Barbara Perry: Well, I think transitioning from COVID at the top of the list. We have to see if we have any more outbreaks there and obviously continue that vaccine message and then getting that vaccine around the world, getting the economy back, seeing if he can get something done with the Republicans on infrastructure, and see if he can apply those values that he named off abroad at home.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely, Nahal Toosi is a Foreign Affairs Reporter at Politico. Barbara Perry is the Director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia Miller Center, and apparently, she and I are making an old-fashioned political science syllabus for everybody to read. [chuckles] Thank you both for being here.
Barbara Perry: Thank you, Melissa.
Nahal Toosi: Thank you.
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