Nuking the hurricane: Biden isn't to blame for Putin and Trump — but he needs to outlast them

Facing rising danger of nuclear war and a massive hurricane, Joe Biden hits an inflection point. Is he up for it?

By Brian Karem


Published September 29, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

This time around, the squeaking of a nearby crane did him in.

Guests and members of the press gathered on a cool fall afternoon in the Rose Garden Tuesday to hear President Biden talk about health care for seniors and the price of insulin.

But as is typical with anything Biden says of late, the message got drowned out. This time literally, as well as figuratively. Bob Parant, a Medicare beneficiary with type 1 diabetes, spoke about all the good things the Biden administration has done for the elderly before introducing the president, but a construction crane on the North Lawn began squeaking so loudly that it not only drowned out Parant's speech, but a good portion of Biden's as well.

TV and sound technicians grimaced at the loud interruption, so I asked a nearby press wrangler if they could "shut that shit off," since, you know, the president was talking. The wrangler shrugged his shoulders and said there wasn't much that could be done. I didn't expect that answer.

That serves well enough as a metaphor for most of Biden's time in office and his communication woes. His message consistently gets drowned out by the din of a world that's divided and stressed — or by a crane no one will shut up while he delivers a speech meant to reach the elderly, many of whom aren't thrilled with his actions in office. As usual, his communications staff couldn't do anything about it. 

Hurricane Ian also drowned out the festivities, and Biden had to shift gears and speak about that issue first, leading many of the assembled reporters to ask why we were even gathered in the Rose Garden in the first place. Shouldn't we be talking about the impending natural disaster? It seemed like yet another misstep by this administration. Over the last year and a half, chief of staff Ron Klain has taken most of the heat for the president's comms problems — and for good reason. He runs the show. He sets the agenda. Radio, TV and newspaper executives, as well as some reporters, have complained that Klain has no love for the press and thinks we're a bunch of fools. Some have talked of heated disagreements with Klain.

Joe Biden's biggest problems have been caused by external factors: Ukraine, Donald Trump, inflation, hurricanes, the rise of fascism. But his administration has been most adept at stepping on its own feet.

But the biggest problems facing this presidency have been brought about by external factors, not by an ill-tempered or short-sighted chief of staff. The war in Ukraine, the constant daily drama surrounding Donald Trump, inflation, hurricanes, the rise of fascism in Italy and other national and international stories have diminished Biden's message. His administration has seemed most adept at stepping on its own feet, with ill-advised corrections, ill-advised appearances and a flat-footed approach both inside the briefing room and in the real world.

Consider the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Biden's biggest critics have pounded him on most issues, when it comes to Ukraine they often silently and sullenly nod their heads and admit he has done a "decent if not a damn fine job" in dealing with the biggest existential threat to the world we have faced since the end of the Cold War.

That war has helped to wreck economies around the world, increased the fear of nuclear war, and is fundamentally responsible for the inflation spiral and the threat of global recession. War is bad for business, but Vladimir Putin doesn't care. He's on a mission.

So is Biden. And as one Republican senator explained, "He seems to be at his best when things are at their worst." Or, as a Pentagon source put it, "We've been fundamentally sound in our measured response to Putin. We've done a good job at trying to contain it." 

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This week the threat of nuclear war — particularly the potential use of tactical nukes on the battlefield — has re-emerged as Putin has said he's not bluffing about it. "If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without a doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff," Putin said. Since he just staged a fake referendum and now claims that large areas of Ukrainian territory are now officially part of Russia, he has a built-in justification for using tactical nukes on the battlefield, or even perhaps larger nuclear arms somewhere else —  if Ukraine refuses to accept the results of this referendum.

As has been reported in the Atlantic and elsewhere, this an indication of the desperation Putin now feels as he loses manpower and territory in Ukraine. A sham referendum "is what Putin wanted and needed to make it seem legitimate," the Pentagon source told me, "but he's fooling no one." 

Since Putin now claims that large chunks of Ukraine are now part of Russia, he has a built-in justification for using tactical nukes on the battlefield.

Indeed, Putin continues to threaten the use of nukes even after an official in his own government said they weren't on the table. "We are aware of these threats and we're monitoring them," a Pentagon source told me, "but so far they haven't led to us changing our approach to Ukraine." In other words, there's no evidence that the Russians are moving nuclear weapons to the battlefield. The threat is real, however. Putin is "not backing off. He's doubling down," said the source. "He shows no sign of wanting to negotiate," and thus the pressure builds.

Putin has reportedly called up 300,000 reservists to throw them into the fight, but that isn't going so well either. Reports inside Russia show people refusing to go or even fleeing the country however they can. This week, the State Department warned anyone with dual U.S./Russian citizenship to get out of Russia or face possible conscription into the military. Putin's war is starting to look absurd.

Meanwhile, the Russian leader is losing his international mojo. Both India and China have recently given him the cold shoulder, further isolating him. His failures in the Donbas region and in southern Ukraine have further exacerbated the situation. He is like a cornered sewer rat who can become infinitely more dangerous through fear. 

"The nuclear threat is as real as it gets," a Defense Department source explained on background. The question is, are we in the press reporting it rationally or hyperbolically?

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, a leading figure in Putin's inner circle, said the West would not intervene even if "Russia is forced to use the most fearsome weapon against the Ukrainian regime," because "demagogues across the ocean and in Europe are not going to die in a nuclear apocalypse."

According to U.S intelligence sources, as reported by the BBC, Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons they could bring to the party in Ukraine. But using any of those would raise the stakes toward all-out nuclear war, would contaminate vital farmland, and would threaten further action against Putin in his own country. 

Putin is "not backing off. He's doubling down," said my Pentagon source. "He shows no sign of wanting to negotiate," and so the pressure builds. The threat is all too real.

The nuclear threat has put everything under a microscope when it comes to Russia. Apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline this week led several European countries to point the finger at Russia. After three days of methane gas pouring into the Baltic Sea, no one has been identified as the perpetrator, nor is there clear evidence of sabotage. Russia has suggested the U.S. is to blame — Russia helped build the pipeline, after all — and the EU's foreign policy chief has said that the damage is "utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response." No one has even suggested a plausible motive for sabotage. 

Meanwhile, the Independent reports that Chinese and Russian naval warships were seen 75 miles from Alaska's Aleutian Islands, prompting a host of articles about the supposed incursion. "Look, this isn't atypical," I was told by my Pentagon source. "They've operated near Hawaii before. Seventy-five miles isn't that close. We've operated closer [than that] to Russian and Chinese territory." 

So while there are rational concerns, so far there's nothing to show that Putin is doing more than trying to scare people and take advantage of that fear. His actions serve as a reminder that we're all in this together and the world is an increasingly small place. 

Divisive politics around the world are increasingly damaging our chances for peace and prosperity. Nothing brought that home more than Tuesday's press briefing. FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell spoke directly to those who were upset that President Biden had not yet spoken to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about hurricane Ian. 

I asked Criswell whether that has impeded efforts by FEMA or the federal government to implement plans in Florida. Her response was straightforward: "We do not bring politics into our ability to respond to these disasters. We're going to support whatever Gov. DeSantis asks of us." 

I pressed her again: "So the communication between the president and the governor has no impact on how you all operate?" 

She answered. "Zero."

By Wednesday, Biden had finally spoken to DeSantis, and the Florida governor actually said the president was helpful. Even in the political climate of the United States, there are still times when we can put aside our differences. There's a global lesson to be learned here as well.

On Tuesday, Biden's health care initiative pep talk ended with standard stump-speech material about giving people "breathing room" and how the United States needs to remember who we are. Then he began shaking hands among the many people — not many of them senior citizens — who had assembled to hear him. 

I climbed up a ladder abandoned by a photographer and watched President Biden glad-hand and take selfies with his supporters. Music blared from the half-dozen or so speakers set up on the South Lawn. I tried to time my shouted question as one song ended and before another began.

"Are you concerned about Russia using tactical nukes in Ukraine?" I asked. Biden caught the question and looked squarely at me, while standing some 30 feet away. But the music began again and blared from a speaker a foot from my right ear. I could barely hear myself. Biden squinted and waved at me to ask again. But as loud as I can be as a former football coach, I couldn't pierce the music. Biden gave up and walked away.

There's a metaphor for this administration as well. The cacophony of competing questions about the economy, the stock market, COVID, Trump, misogyny, racism, health care, public education and infrastructure all battle for his attention.

Meanwhile, the existential threat of a nuclear conflagration remains — unable so far to pierce the ring of fire that our divisive politics have become.

But there's hope. After all, if Biden and DeSantis can come together, even for a moment, then anything is possible.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Hurricane Ian Joe Biden Nuclear War Ron Desantis Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin