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RICH LOWRY: A presidency in its dotage

Is anyone surprised that Joe Biden is caving? It’s what he does.

In a disgracefully craven move, President Biden has paused weapons shipments to Israel to try to prevent the Jewish state from launching a full-scale offensive against the remaining Hamas military stronghold in Rafah. It’s a policy shift sheathed in high-minded concern about the safety of civilians in Gaza, but happens to be a change in direction that is welcome to a political left that has whipped itself into an anti-Israel frenzy in the months since the Oct. 7 attack.

You can count on Joe Biden when the chips are up, but certainly not when they are down. You want to be in a foxhole with Biden only if you are certain that the members of “the squad,” the left-wing faction in the House, approve of his being there. Joe Biden has your back — from a comfortable distance, just in case political circumstances change.

The president is a weather vane for the left. That doesn’t mean that Biden himself is a committed progressive or in the ideological vanguard. He’s not. A weather vane doesn’t affect how fast the wind is blowing or in what direction; it just shifts in reaction to larger forces. The left demanded unilateral student debt relief; Biden complied. The left wanted a de facto open border; Biden delivered it. The left is radical on abortion; so is Biden. And the left long ago lost all patience with the Gaza war and “Genocide Joe’s” support for it; and here, lo and behold, Biden is as estranged from Israel as any U.S. president in recent memory.

It may be that Biden also fears, as Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies argues, that if Israel moves against the last holdout of Hamas, Iran will lash out with its proxies against Israel and the United States. If so, this, too, fits with a general picture of weakness, and one that contrasts with the approach of his predecessor. Biden is afraid that our adversaries will escalate, whereas, under Donald Trump, our adversaries feared that he’d escalate.

Biden is always walking with cat’s feet. In a costly failure of nerve, he opposed giving Ukraine the weapons at the onset of the conflict with Russia that might have allowed Kyiv to push its adversary all the way back. Now, he’s trying to stay Israel’s hand as it attempts to complete its military operation against Hamas. Biden has even been too timid to hit the Houthis hard enough to keep them from escalating their disruption of international shipping.

Biden has zero ability to surprise or project strength. He won’t make bold, unexpected gestures, like, for instance, visiting the World War I memorial recently vandalized by pro-Hamas protesters, or trying to reclaim the center by shutting down the border. And he’s never sent an unforgettable message to our enemies the way that Trump did with the killing of Iranian operative Qasem Soleimani.

When Biden says, by way of warning, “Don’t,” the people he’s trying to deter are unimpressed. This is a presidency in its dotage, led around by more energetic and purposeful forces at home and too apprehensive to warn off our adversaries abroad. It’s little wonder that Biden rates poorly on leadership and strength in public opinion surveys, qualities that are indispensable for a successful presidency. The only thing Biden has to fear … is that everyone can sense he’s afraid.

Rich Lowry is on X @RichLowry.

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