When the wheels of Air Force One lifted off the runway at Andrews Air Force base on Wednesday, it must have been an unusual feeling for 78-year old President Biden. No, not because his neck had been attacked by a cicada on the tarmac moments before. Rather, because he’s likely dreamed about this trip for close to a half century.
Forty-six years ago, then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield named the 32-year old Biden to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a highly unusual assignment for a freshman senator with only two years under his belt. Biden is now the seventh former SFRC member to become president, the first being Andrew Jackson; the most recent, John F. Kennedy. Nineteen committee members have gone on to become Secretaries of State.
Reportedly, one of Mansfield’s motivations in naming Biden to the prestigious panel was simply to keep him busy and thoroughly engaged in the Senate. After all, the newly elected Biden was still in mourning after the tragic death of his first wife and a daughter in an automobile accident just before Christmas 1972, after his election but before he was sworn into office.
Biden initially told Mansfield that he would decline to join the Senate, that his two sons who had been seriously injured in the accident needed his time and attention. Biden even suggested to the then-governor of Delaware to begin thinking of other Democrats to appoint in his place. Meanwhile Mansfield was calling the hospital every day to check on Biden’s well being and state of mind. Finally, Biden relented and allowed Francis Valeo, the secretary of the Senate, to come to the hospital in Wilmington to administer the oath of office. (Yes, the same Valeo as in the landmark Supreme Court campaign finance case Buckley v. Valeo, the Buckley being then-Conservative Party Sen. James Buckley).
Biden would go on to become the ranking Democrat on the committee in 1997 at 54 years of age, and chairman for the first time four years later in 2001. During his 36 years in the Senate and another eight as vice president, Biden reportedly met with 150 foreign leaders from 60 countries (including Popes and Queens).
Legendary Washington reporter Al Hunt, reflecting on his 50 years covering Biden, recalled how Biden came to build a strong working relationship with conservative firebrand SFRC Chairman Jesse Helms and the lessons that Biden learned in those days. The best North Carolina political reporter of his generation, the Charlotte Observer’s Jim Morrill, wrote, “Their biggest accomplishment was the 1999 Helms-Biden Act. It authorized the payment of nearly $1 billion in unpaid dues to the United Nations. In the eyes of some, that restored America’s credibility with the body, though many conservatives remained opposed. It also reorganized the State Department. “
Of course, that was in the pre-Donald Trump era. While both major political parties have had episodes of nationalism, isolationism, and protectionism, internationalism and a belief in American exceptionalism have been the norm. For the first 70 years after World War II, the president of the United States, no matter his party, had a second, unofficial title: “leader of the free world.” He also had the role of indispensable ally to other democracies around the world.
According to Pew Research Center surveys, by the end of the Trump administration, just 17 percent of the public in 16 foreign nations said they “had confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs.” The most recent edition of that survey, released just this week, showed that number had jumped back up to 75 percent. Similarly, as the Trump era closed, just 34 percent of those foreign respondents said they have a favorable view of the U.S. That figure has jumped to 62 percent favorable.
Yet almost every ambassador or diplomat in Washington representing a close U.S. ally believes that it will be some time before their governments and their citizens will fully trust the U.S. as an ally again. That is Biden’s challenge, to restore the role that the U.S. played for 75 years started with the outbreak of World War II.
Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s first foray abroad as president would no doubt have occurred earlier. But now he has finally stepped onto that stage. The stakes may be higher even than he dreamed.