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A presidential test like no other for Biden

War in Ukraine, a Supreme Court selection and the State of the Union address present an unparalleled gantlet for a president who ran as a crisis-tested leader.
President Joe Biden addresses the Russian invasion of Ukraine at White House on Feb. 24, 2022.
President Joe Biden addresses the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the White House on Thursday.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The most important public speech on the presidential calendar is the State of the Union address. Filling a Supreme Court vacancy is one of the longest-lasting decisions a president can make. The last time a president confronted a large-scale war in Europe was nearly 80 years ago.

President Joe Biden is dealing with all three in a single week. And now, a man who aspired to the presidency his entire adult life faces an extraordinary convergence of presidential challenges that will test the experience, judgment and competence that he argued made him best suited to be commander-in-chief.

For weeks, Biden has toggled between multiple meetings a day focused on his selection of the first Black woman to be nominated for the Supreme Court by his self-imposed, end-of-February deadline, and phone calls with foreign leaders and briefings from his national security team about the escalating crisis in Ukraine. And in between, he’s been writing and holding preparation sessions for his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. It has posed a challenge “for a man who’s already over-scheduled,” as one official close to the White House said.

Just Wednesday, for instance, Biden had back-to-back meetings in the Oval Office — a briefing on the Russian sanctions package with his national security team, an update from White House counsel Dana Remus and Director of Legislative Affairs Louisa Terrell on consultations with senators on the Supreme Court, and then with Mike Donilon, his top strategist, reviewing Ukraine-related passages in his State of the Union address.

In recent months, Biden has had more than 30 calls and meetings with world leaders over Ukraine, including 12 foreign leader calls since the beginning of last week, according to a White House official. 

“It’s important for a president to do both national security and the domestic work at the same time,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said. “That’s what he’s here to do and what he’s doing.”

White House officials insist that neither undertaking has suffered in the process. All presidents must multitask, officials said, with one repeating the well-worn axiom that the president had long established he could “walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Biden is working alongside veteran teams he assembled to focus on the tasks. Leading his diplomatic efforts is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who first joined Biden’s orbit two decades ago as staff director for the Biden-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Helping corral his Supreme Court search is Doug Jones, a former senator from Alabama who worked on the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a young Sen. Biden four decades ago. 

Biden’s new ambassador to the European Union, Mark Gitenstein, served as chief counsel to Biden when he chaired the Judiciary Committee, and was succeeded in that role by Klain. And Donilon, perhaps his longest-serving and closest consigliere, remains the chief architect of his message.

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, said the challenges Biden faces now come at a time of great vulnerability for our democracy.

“To this historic moment comes Biden, who has served 50 years in national politics, more than almost any other figure in our history. To these problems he brings that half century of political experience and the long memory of a leader who began his career dealing with seemingly now antique questions like the Vietnam War and detente with Moscow,” he said. “As Truman once said, 'Not every reader will be a leader, but every leader must be a reader of history.'" 

To the extent the White House has had to reshuffle its schedule, it’s been to pull down planned public events to promote the already-enacted infrastructure law so Biden can work in speech preparation sessions.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who now holds Biden’s Senate seat, said he spoke recently with the president as he prepared to travel on a congressional delegation to Eastern Europe. Even as they discussed the trip, he said the president shared with him that he’d invested “a lot of time” reading up on potential Supreme Court nominees’ backgrounds and judicial records. 

“He was comfortable that he had very good options,” Coons said.

The challenges before Biden now, in different ways, shaped his campaign at a critical point. The once-front-running Democrat stumbled into the first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire as then-President Donald Trump faced impeachment on charges of trying to extort Ukraine’s president to launch an investigation of Biden’s son Hunter. 

Weeks later, it was Biden’s promise on a South Carolina debate stage to choose a Black woman if and when a vacancy opened on the high court that was perhaps the key element that secured the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and with it a victory in the South Carolina primary that set him on the path to the nomination.

In his most extensive campaign interview, just days before the Iowa caucuses, Biden told NBC News that while he had run for president twice before and considered it in other years, 2020 was perhaps the moment he was best suited for.

“The very things that I think are needed most right now in the country are not the very things that were needed eight years ago or 12 years ago or 15, 20 years ago, but they’re in my wheelhouse,” he said. “It’s re-establishing our place in the world in foreign policy, and domestically bringing the country together. And they’re the things that I think my record shows I’ve been pretty good at my whole life. And I think that has to be done.”

Earlier in the campaign, Biden also shared that his wife, Jill, who at times had been cool to presidential runs, had pushed him hardest to run this time.

“The reason why my wife wanted me to run this time is because of the Supreme Court,” he shared with a New Hampshire voter.

As a candidate, Biden often joked about how President Barack Obama took office facing two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an economic collapse — “everything but locusts landed on his desk,” he would say.

Biden’s own presidency will now rest on whether he can navigate not just the current challenges but others still to come.