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How to be a crisis president when crises don't unite the country anymore

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If you worked at the White House, what was the first item on your agenda on Monday morning? The dangerous final hours of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, with terrorists seeking every opportunity to attack our troops as they depart? The devastation wrought by Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the Gulf Coast? Or the alarming surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations at a moment when the nation is desperately hoping to get back to a semblance of normality?

All presidents are crisis managers, but, tackling three at once is the equivalent of having to walk, chew gum and play the cello all while dodging beer bottles thrown by hecklers. As a result, an administration that asks to be judged by its professionalism and competence is under pressure from political opponents and even some allies. The question for President Joe Biden is not just about how to handle any one of these calamities, but about how to be president in a country that no longer unites in response to catastrophes.

“Biden came into a crisis presidency, and nothing has changed,” a senior administration official told me, citing the parlous state of the economy when Biden took office, the need to quickly develop a nationwide Covid-19 vaccination system and the massive cyberattacks threatening critical U.S. infrastructure.

The official acknowledged the obvious: The Afghanistan withdrawal “hasn’t been pretty.” The fact that the United States and its allies have been able to evacuate more than 120,000 people from the country in an around-the-clock airlift is an impressive logistical achievement. But the deaths of 13 U.S. service members in a terrorist bombing at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate were tragic.

But note the difference between the response to that attack and to the terrorist truck-bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which claimed the lives of 241 U.S. service members, including 220 Marines, nearly four decades ago.

Back then, the nation joined President Ronald Reagan in mourning the loss. Last week, by contrast, some Republicans in Congress took the occasion of the Kabul bombing to call for Biden to be impeached. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., threatened that there will be “a day of reckoning” — not for the terrorists who killed our troops, but for Biden as commander in chief.

I can’t help but imagine what today’s Twitter trolls would have said about President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the day after Pearl Harbor. And I shudder to think what contemporary conspiracy theorists might have said about the announcement of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine 10 years after the death of Roosevelt, who suffered from the disease.

We eradicated polio in the United States through universal vaccination, despite some early setbacks in public confidence about the safety of the vaccines. But today, even public health is used as “wedge” political issue — and opportunistic Republican governors have sought to boost their careers by portraying sensible measures against the coronavirus, such as mask-wearing and vaccine mandates, as tyrannical assaults on personal freedom.

The result is that cases of Covid-19 are soaring throughout the South as students are returning to classrooms for what everyone hoped would be a normal school year. Because the coronavirus does not respect state lines, political grandstanding by the likes of Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have created a problem for the whole nation that could have been substantially mitigated — and undermine Biden’s ability to forge a national front in the fight against the virus.

Because the delta variant of the Covid-19 virus is so much more contagious and virulent than the original strain, it turns out that those of us who responsibly got vaccinated may soon need booster shots. Biden and his aides have patiently explained that as the virus evolves and our understanding of how it works improves, our public health response must change accordingly. But they have to deliver this message to an audience poisoned not just by bogus cures and preventatives, but also by misinformation.

I’m hoping that recovery from the widespread damage caused by a Category 4 hurricane is one task that can still escape being politicized. Even if the arguments about the role climate change plays in intensifying tropical cyclones continue to be venomous, the Louisiana communities that Ida destroyed need to be rebuilt now.

“Not everything can go smoothly, but we will continue to get the job done,” the senior Biden administration official said. Even if that’s wishful thinking, forging ahead with the tasks at hand strikes me as the only reasonable way to proceed. Perhaps someday, this country will regain the ability — and the willingness — to unite at times of crisis and pull together as one. For now, if the Biden administration has to work alone, so be it. The job will be harder. But it has to be done.

Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.

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