If there is one eternal truth, it’s that no one knows what voters are going to do until election day. With that said, it’s time to start thinking about what kind of a commander in chief former Vice President Joe Biden would be if he wins in November.
Unfortunately, Biden’s campaign did not provide a comment for this story. In fact, Task & Purpose has made several requests since April to interview Biden on defense and veterans issues, but to no avail.
That’s hardly surprising since Biden has barely talked about national security issues during his campaign, except during a Sept. 12, 2019 Democratic debate, when he suggested moving troops from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
The biggest clues about what troops should expect if Biden is elected could come from the previous administration. Under President Barack Obama, gay and lesbian service members were finally allowed to serve openly. Women were also allowed to serve in combat career fields.
But Obama’s tenure was also defined by a pitched battle with Republicans on taxes and spending that led to deep budget cuts that began to bite in his second term. The military branches shed service members to pay for expensive weapons systems. Money for training also became scarce.
Despite the budget crunch, the U.S. military still had to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Years of non-stop operations combined with delays in the F-35 program and a lack of spare parts contributed to a crisis in military aviation, in which most of the military’s aircraft could not fly on any given day.
Troops back home were expected to do more with less. In 2009, Obama’s first year in office, the military saw a 3.9% pay increase. In 2016, troops got a 1.3% raise.
So far, Biden has not outlined a defense plan and the Democrats’ draft platform has been vague on military issues, said Michael O’Hanlon, an adviser to the Biden campaign.
If Biden were elected president, he would likely face a debate within his own party about whether to keep the military’s budget essentially flat or to make steep cuts to defense spending in order to pay for programs to counter pandemic diseases and other threats, said O’Hanlon, a foreign policy and intelligence expert with the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.
“Biden has got to make some new investments in long-term preparedness against things like pandemics,” O’Hanlon told Task & Purpose. “He needs some political defense against the charge that he’s just exploded the deficit even further to do that. So if he can make smart cuts to defense, I think it would be tempting to consider it.”
Should Biden become commander in chief, he will also lead a military that has been rocked by President Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure, during which the president has insulted current and former military leaders, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis; Trump has provided extensive support to troops accused or convicted of killing unarmed people; and the president has taken revenge against anyone whom he perceives as disloyal, such as Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness at his impeachment inquiry.
The Defense Department needs time to heal, and the absolute worst thing Biden could do would be to replicate President Obama’s uneasy relationship with top military leaders, which became especially fraught in 2009 after options for the Afghanistan surge leaked to the media.
The Obama administration became so fixated with keeping the numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan below caps set by the White House that an Army Combat Aviation Brigade deployed to Afghanistan in 2015 with only 800 soldiers. (Combat aviation brigades typically have between 1,500 and 2,500 soldiers, but this unit had to use civilian contractors to maintain its aircraft.)
Throughout Obama’s tenure, the National Security Council was heavily involved in making military decisions, leading Obama’s first two defense secretaries to publicly complain that the White House was micromanaging the Pentagon.
Now Biden is reportedly considering naming Ambassador Susan Rice, who led the National Security Council during Obama’s second term, as his running mate.
But the past does not have to become the prologue if Biden becomes the next president. Biden has more than 40 years’ experience in the Senate and White House, so he is more comfortable with national security issues than some of his Democratic predecessors, a former senior defense official told Task & Purpose.
Going back to Jimmy Carter, Democratic presidents have tended to be suspicious of top military leaders’ motives, but Biden has had enough experience working with generals and admirals to not be intimidated by them, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
However; when considering what Biden would be like as president, it is also worth remembering an incident that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recalled in his memoir “Duty.”
During a 2009 Oval Office meeting about the Afghanistan surge, Biden said the military “should consider the president’s decision as an order,” Gates wrote in his book.
Obama then added, “I am giving an order,” Gates recalled.
“I was shocked,” Gates wrote. “I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the American military, it is completely unnecessary. As secretary of defense, I had never issued an ‘order’ to get something done; nor had I heard any commander do so.”
“Obama’s ‘order’ at Biden’s urging demonstrated, in my view, the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture,” Gates continued. “That order was unnecessary and insulting, proof positive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership.”
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Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 15 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.