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Biden’s New Year Of Living Dangerously

By Richard A. EpsteiinHoover Institution

In the period since President Joe Biden marked his hundredth day in office, his popularity as president has tumbled about thirteen points from the mid–50 percent range to the low 40s. The most precipitous drop occurred in late summer 2021, around the time of the Afghanistan debacle. Although it is easy to explain why Biden continues to lose the trust of a majority of Americans, at year’s end he retains the support of a significant minority who still endorse his basic worldview and think that casting further aspersions on Donald Trump will somehow deflect attention from Biden’s own record.

Going into 2022, that deflection will not work. Biden is likely to lose his precarious control over both the Senate and the House unless he can confront and correct his hapless record of misguided priorities. Start with his self-inflicted Afghan meltdown and its repercussions. Before September 1, 2021, there was no reason for the United States to cut and run in Afghanistan. The heavy losses were in the past. Troop levels were low (around 2,500). Casualties were even lower: zero. A coordinated strategy was in place for the Afghans to take the military lead. Biden was consumed by his desire to score political points by pulling out before the symbolic date of September 11, 2021, even though the Taliban were not holed up in their winter caves but were still active in the field. When Biden cut off supplies and logistics, the Afghan army folded. Now, after the Taliban takeover, the risk of starvation, religious intolerance, and subordination and degradation of women are the order of the day.

Biden might describe this debacle as a “success” but it is turning out to be the opening round of a further array of setbacks in other areas. No ally can trust him fully. No foreign aggressor need fear that a strategic Biden pulled out of Afghanistan to save scarce military assets for use in other dangerous theaters. If anything, more resources must now be devoted to the Middle East as Iran, Russia, and Turkey—all with severe problems of internal stability­—regard Biden as an easy mark to be toyed with rather than a serious adversary to be avoided. And so, look forward to further Russian incursions in Ukraine and intensified activities in remote places like Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken finds it difficult to tell friend from foe. China’s aggressive intentions toward Taiwan are also fueled in part by Biden’s squeamish attitude.

Given these hostile developments, some expansion of military forces, especially naval and air, seems to be imperative, but Biden is more concerned with long-term climate change and a dangerous flirtation with woke politics in the military. The Defense Department’s bold words on our national preparedness are belied by the 1.6 percent budget increase, a below-inflation increase, which is likely to cause systematic programmatic delays that go hand-in-hand with increased tensions across multiple theaters.

Similarly, Biden’s energy policy reflects systematic presidential overreach, starting with his opening day executive order that unilaterally revoked the permit for the long-overdue Keystone XL pipeline. That decision was an open affront to our Canadian allies, who are far less likely to put their trust in the United States going forward. But more important, it was the first step in the president’s concerted plan to slow-walk the continued development of US fossil fuel sources, relying on the vain hope that increased production of wind and solar will somehow offset those hefty losses. But when the shortages start to set in and the gas prices go up, Biden engages in a “grand” strategic gesture to release some fifty million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum reserve, which will cover less than three days of domestic supply. At the same time, he issues his marching orders to the FTC to investigate the oil companies for alleged price fixing, only to find oil prices dropping shortly thereafter.

Biden’s initial energy blunders have led to further adverse consequences. His appeal to OPEC and others to increase the output of crude oil to offset shortages in the domestic production have fallen on deaf ears. Worse, Biden might well adopt suggestions from Senator Elizabeth Warren to ban or cut back on foreign exports, which could only make matters worse, in part, by slowing down the replacement of dirtier coal with cleaner natural gas. Any export ban would also lead to a decline in domestic production overall, idling refining capacity. These two factors in combination could lead to job and revenue losses, as dirtier foreign energy displaces cleaner domestic production. Biden’s first priority should be to unleash, not stifle, domestic activity.

Nonetheless, Biden has doubled down on his anti-fossil-fuel policies. His misnamed Build Back Better (BBB) program contains a long list of taxes, fees, and regulations that are intended to stifle the production of fossil fuels, which compounds the energy market distortions created by offering a dizzying array of subsidies for solar and wind. These latter sources are not the pollution-free solutions that they are often advertised to be, including, for example, the deforestation in the Philippines in order to mine the larger quantities of nickel needed by solar power systems. Yet Biden is strangely unaware of the downside to alternative energy sources and thus has plunged forward with his recent “Executive Order on Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability.” His program targets zero-emissions programs for electricity generation, automobile fleets, and physical plants. His order does not make the slightest effort to put a cost estimate to the program or to make the elementary calculation on whether a higher rate of return can be achieved through greater efficiency in fossil-fuel production. His program purports to set federal policy for “a carbon-pollution-free electricity sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050,” which both sidesteps Congress on the one side and seeks to bind future presidents and future Congresses on the other. Ironically, Biden thinks he can achieve savings “through use of full lifecycle cost methodologies”—the case with nickel could easily point against wind and solar.

Furthermore, although the particular impact of this program on the overall economy is unclear at best, nothing in his executive decree addresses the level of inflation, which reached 6.8 percent in November 2021. The Democratic faithful, such as John Cassidy of the New Yorker, spin a happy tale that the crux of the difficulty lies in a combination of supply chain problems and the COVID pandemic, so that when these quiet down, inflation can subside to its former 2 percent level. But Biden is not wise to pin too much hope on this theory, which rids his administration of responsibility even as it battles its own ill-conceived COVID policies, including the increasingly unpopular vaccine mandates being clobbered in the courts. Rather, the large increases in money supply, spurred by government spending and the purchase activities of the Federal Reserve, are key parts of the inflation story.

The biggest inflationary threat comes from the combination of taxation, public expenditures, and regulations associated with “Build Back Better.” At this point, it looks as though that new bill will not make it past the Senate, which Biden should regard as a blessing in disguise. He can then campaign on the platform that our current economic woes were intensified by the failure of the Senate to engage in much-needed public investment, while breathing a sigh of relief that matters did not get any worse.

But they can. A quick look at trade policy suggests how matters can unravel with another round of government meddling. The strongest rap against Donald Trump was the constant fear that his meddling in international markets could lead to trade wars and dangerous protectionism. But now the Biden administration has moved into a protectionist stance, including gratuitous spats with Canada (yet again) over a proposed tariff increase on Canadian softwood lumber, which will only slow down growth in the domestic construction industry. Biden has lost sight of the central principle of trade policy, which is never to arrange tariffs for concentrated domestic industries; the high costs will hurt consumers and export markets that depend on the use of cheaper inputs to remain competitive in markets. 

It is therefore no surprise that Biden finds voters pessimistic about both his limited leadership capabilities on the one hand, and his economic policies on the other. Candidate Biden ran on bold promises that helped get him elected. But President Biden has fallen short. Almost a year remains for him to set his house in order in time for the congressional elections, but he shows little inclination to become more moderate, rendering it all the more likely that on the day of reckoning he will have little personal esteem or political support.


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