Last Saturday in Iowa, the day after an American MQ-9 Reaper dropped its ordnance on Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Joe Biden moved quickly to make himself the face of Democratic opposition to President Donald Trump’s drone strike. It was early evening at a Des Moines elementary school gymnasium, and despite the dip in temperature and the long lines to get inside, a larger and more engaged audience than the ones he attracted over the summer and fall was waiting for the former vice president.
It was a white-collar crowd—Des Moines-area lawyers and insurance industry professionals and a smattering of D.C. Obama veterans now in town to help Biden in the homestretch. The top lawyer at Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the last administration was there, and told me it was the first time he’d ever canvassed Iowa for a candidate.
Iran had heightened the stakes. “#WWIII” was trending online and predictions of an all-out war were commonplace. Trump might now benefit from the halo that glows atop all wartime leaders, at least for a time. And the importance of the outcome of the Democratic primary—to say nothing of the country and the world— had suddenly ballooned. Would voters want an experienced hand whose position on world affairs is basically, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” (Biden) or would they gravitate toward someone like Bernie Sanders, whose ringing calls to get the U.S. out of Middle East quagmires have the benefit of clarity, but make many a D.C. foreign-policy hand queasy? The answer may help determine who wins over the Democratic base, and perhaps the country, come November.
While waiting for Biden that evening in Des Moines, one of the pre-program speakers led the crowd in singing “God Bless America.” When he arrived, Biden the candidate still winked and shot finger guns at well-wishers and hugged them afterward, but it was Biden the commander in chief that his advisers wanted on display. The former veep pilloried what he viewed as Trump’s recklessness and called for congressional authorization of any further military engagement with Iran. His aides began planning a major speech on the issue in New York for the following Tuesday.
To Biden’s aides, it was their man’s chance to seize the moment.
“The more the world seems in disarray, especially with Trump as an erratic accelerant to that disarray, the more people seem to be looking for some return to normalcy and strong and steady leadership as opposed to erratic leadership,” said a Biden adviser. “There’s now an even greater premium on experience and being ready on Day One to deal with the mess Trump leaves. To state the obvious, that plays to Biden’s strengths.”
But it also plays to some of his weaknesses. A young voter stood up and asked Biden “How could we trust your judgment?” After all, the voter said, he’d gotten two of the biggest questions in recent years wrong: the 2002 Iraq War vote when he was a senator and the 2011 Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which Biden, then vice president, counseled Obama against.