As mega-crises swirl in from all directions at once, new presidents quickly figure out that the center of America’s governance bull’s-eye isn’t round after all – it’s Oval.
And that’s the way things turned out this past week for the newest occupant of the Oval Office. President Joe Biden and his inner circle planned a weeklong message politics campaign to showcase his most impressive crisis leadership effort so far. Namely: Biden’s World War II-like mobilization in America’s war against COVID-19. Also, his plan to rescue Americans who were plunged into economic peril by the pandemic shutdown.
But in the process, Biden and his advisers unintentionally also showcased their most unfortunate crisis leadership shortcoming. Namely: their failure to fully anticipate, and attempt to forestall, the predictable refugee crisis that was sure to erupt on America’s southern border when he replaced Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
And all the above was showcased when Biden was interviewed Tuesday by ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos in Pennsylvania, where Biden was promoting his effort to win the war against COVID-19.
Early in the interview, Stephanopoulos asked the obvious question about the surge at the Mexican border in unaccompanied children and teens fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. Biden seemed inexplicably caught off guard. He rambled, sounding unsure of just what it was he wanted to say. And not say.
Stephanopoulos began by noting that "a lot of the migrants coming in saying they're coming in because you promised to make things better ... Was it a mistake not to anticipate this surge?"
Biden replied: "Well, first of all, there was a surge the last two years. In '19 and '20 there was a surge as well."
Stephanopoulos: "This one might be worse."
Biden continued: "No, well, it could be. But here's the deal. We're sending back people to – first of all, the idea that Joe Biden said, ‘Come’ because – I – I heard the other day that they're coming because, you know, I'm a nice guy and I won't do what Trump did."
Stephanopoulos: "They're saying this."
Biden: "Yeah. Well, here's the deal. They're not. The adults are being sent back, number one. That's number one.
"Number two, what do you do with an unaccompanied child that comes to the border? Do you repeat what Trump did? Take them from their mothers, move them away, hold them in cells, et cetera? We're not doin' that."
Huh? Time out: Biden had asked himself what should be done with an "unaccompanied child" – and then he answered that he wasn’t taking them from their mothers. He rambled on, but surprisingly seemed to have no meaningful message to convey.
Finally, Stephanopoulos, once an adviser to President Bill Clinton, asked the obvious key question. And he asked it in a way that guided yet another president to the presidential message Biden should have been sending.
Stephanopoulos: "Do you have to say quite clearly, ‘Don't come’?"
"Yes," said the clearly rescued president. "I can say quite clearly don't come over. And the process of getting set up, and it's not gonna take a whole long time, is to be able to apply for asylum in place. So don't leave your town or city or community. We're gonna make sure we have facilities in those cities and towns run by [the Department of Homeland Security with the Department of Health and Human Services] … You can apply for asylum from where you are right now."
Here we need to inject another crucial point of crisis leadership that, sadly, seemed to have escaped Biden and his capable team. Namely: This was the first time any of us heard Biden conveying that vital message. But it is something those unaccompanied children, teens and – especially! – their parents back in Central America or in the United States should have been hearing from him long ago. He should have begun saying it during the presidential transition. And definitely after he was inaugurated.
Indeed, ever since Inauguration Day, Team Biden should have been doing more than just saying it. They should have been beaming that message visually to Central America – visuals showing people being taken from the border and returned to facilities in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere where they could apply for asylum.
Instead, the Biden administration has banned journalists from covering just what has been happening to these unaccompanied children and teens at the border. That’s worse than wrong. And you know what Team Biden would have been saying if it had been the Trump officials who were banning the media during the 2020 campaign.
Team Biden should have been playing this hand at no Trump ever since the cards were dealt.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.