Split-screen: Biden Speaks to the World, Republicans Can’t Pick a Speaker

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman.
President Biden address the nation from the Oval Office on Thursday.

Rarely is the contrast between the leadership of the two political parties as clear as it has been in recent days. President Biden has been steadfast in responding to the vicious attacks against Israeli citizens by Hamas. Republicans in the House have been so consumed by internal differences that they have left Congress immobilized when action is demanded.

The split-screen projections have reinforced perceptions that Republicans are unable or unwilling to govern. Too many Republicans in the House operate in a bubble constructed of false claims about the 2020 election and conspiracy theories about a potpourri of other topics – a worldview shaped by a diet of Fox News and the erratic and at times dangerous rhetoric of former president Donald Trump. Their legislative goals, to the extent they prioritize them, are mostly unrealistic in a Congress as narrowly divided as this one.

Biden does not have the luxury of dealing with such a world of his own creation. He is the leader of the free world and events intercede, as they have done in the past two weeks. Whether his handling of the Israel-Gaza war is changing perceptions of a president with low approval ratings is questionable. It has, however, provided a case study in the value of experience, expertise and preparation when the unexpected happens.

Republicans have now effectively shut down the legislative branch of government for two weeks because they cannot unify around anyone to become House speaker. After dumping former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), they designated Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) to be the speaker and then allowed him to be so undermined that he withdrew his own nomination without a floor vote.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) raised his hand and then suffered through three losing ballots on the House floor, falling further behind the necessary votes with each ballot. House Republicans then told Jordan on Friday that his time was up and broke for the weekend, keeping Congress in paralysis. Chaos hardly describes the scene on Capitol Hill. They are damaging not only themselves as a party but also faith in the United States as a stable democracy.

As Republicans remained mired in their infighting, Biden tried to project something different. His week was one that few presidents have experienced. His days included a sudden trip to the war zone that is Israel today, progress and then setbacks in efforts to get humanitarian aid flowing to civilians in Gaza, and a full-throated embrace of Israel’s right to defend itself while in Tel Aviv, coupled with frank words, publicly and privately, about the difficult choices Israel must make militarily.

Finally came his Oval Office address on Thursday evening, in which he coupled a request for $61 billion in additional aid for Ukraine and $14 billion in assistance for Israel with a restatement of his belief that the United States must lead in the face of these challenges. “American leadership is what holds the world together,” he said. “American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with.” It now falls to Congress, still without a House speaker, to act on whether to approve the foreign aid.

Biden has come in for considerable criticism during his nearly three years in office. His detractors say he is old, weak and uninspiring – and worse. The messy withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 left a permanent scar on his foreign policy record. Some have blamed him for the Hamas attacks, claiming he has not been tough enough with Iran. He will have to fight to win reelection next year in a race likely to pit him against Trump in a rematch of 2020.

Some presidents have found themselves ill-prepared when international crises erupted. Woodrow Wilson hoped to be a domestic-policy oriented president and then World War I broke out. George W. Bush was an inexperienced leader when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Those who know Biden well say his response both to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’s horrific killing and hostage-taking in Israel reflect a lifetime of experience in foreign affairs and long-held views about the U.S. role in the world. They note that the conflicts represent a world that is familiar to him. He long has been oriented toward Europe and to America’s traditional alliances there, and he has spent decades dealing with Israel and the Middle East.

“They’re part of the infrastructure of global politics that have existed his entire life,” said Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “He has a framework that clicks on and allows him to make the case he needs to make.”

Biden – who joined the Senate in 1973 and was a longtime member and eventually chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming vice president in 2009 – has lived through events, has met and known foreign leaders over decades, and has formed strong views about America’s geopolitical role. He sees this moment as particularly momentous, an inflection point, as he said again on Thursday night, a time that has called on the United States once again to step up.

In this country, public support for Israel is strong, perhaps stronger than it has been in years as a result of the carnage inflicted by Hamas. Support for continued assistance to Ukraine has slipped among Republicans, though most Republican leaders in Congress still back the course Biden has followed. Putting aid for both countries in the same package enhances the likelihood that Ukraine will get what administration officials believe it needs.

On Ukraine and now Israel, Biden has earned praise from abroad and from many in the foreign policy community at home. On Ukraine, he took the unusual step of sharing U.S. intelligence to warn European allies, and Ukrainian leaders, that Russian President Vladimir Putin was preparing to launch a war against its neighbor. When that happened, Biden was able to rally a coalition that has provided the arms and other assistance that has allowed the Ukrainians to sustain their war effort.

When Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Biden responded by offering Israel the full support of the United States to defend itself, calling Hamas “pure, unadulterated evil” and then showing his commitment with his trip to Israel. Having done that, he made it possible to offer frank advice to Israelis and to warn their leaders to think carefully about the military steps they are preparing.

“When I was in Israel yesterday,” Biden said on Thursday, “I said that when America experienced the hell of 9/11, we felt enraged as well. While we sought and got justice, we made mistakes. So, I cautioned the government of Israel not to be blinded by rage.”

Whether Biden’s predecessors would have moved as quickly and with as much determination is an open question. Still, difficult days lie ahead for Biden. The Ukrainians have not achieved the breakthrough with their counteroffensive that U.S. officials had hoped might take place. The $61 billion in new assistance, if approved by Congress, could give Ukraine the resources it needs to get through fighting in 2024.

Russia has suffered massive losses, but Putin may be looking ahead, hoping that the 2024 election will deliver a Trump presidency and a backing away from Ukraine by the United States. Maintaining full support from European countries will require constant effort by U.S. officials.

Even more danger exists in the Middle East. There Biden is not the master of events. Events will control him, and decisions by Israel and Hamas will shape those events. A full-scale ground war by Israel with the purpose of wiping out Hamas could risk massive civilian casualties in Gaza, which could undermine what international support Israel now enjoys.

The biggest fear is that a war between Israel and Hamas becomes a regional conflict, with Hezbollah attacking from Lebanon, aided by Iran, and with Israel overstepping in its response, triggering an all-out conflict. Some analysts see those dangers as far greater today than they were a week ago.

This is Biden’s world and likely will be through next year’s election. He has set his course and made clear his priorities. Republicans in the House, beholden to Trump, can’t even elect a speaker after two weeks of trying, let alone agree on a workable strategy domestically or abroad. That contrast speaks volumes about the current state of politics in the United States.

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) makes his way to a House Republican conference meeting after failing to be elected speaker on Friday.