I have an odd, uneasy feeling about President Biden’s decision to head to Scotland this week for the international summit on climate change.
He flew away from an exceedingly fractious Congress and much public unhappiness with his leadership. I wish he had stayed home.
His trip conjures up my memory of a Johns Hopkins University president, Dr. Lincoln Gordon, who, back in the early 1970s, took an official trip to India at a time when there was widespread discontent among faculty, staff and students about a host of issues.
A general sense of malaise and restlessness hung over the university’s campus.
If pollsters had been interviewing the Hopkins community in those days it is likely that Dr. Gordon would have had the same unsatisfactory poll ratings that President Biden had among the American people as he headed overseas.
But President Gordon ignored the festering problems issues on his doorstep and left the university anyhow, traveling to India with the dean of the School of Public Health to inspect some sort of cooperative health project Hopkins had in India.
In the few days that President Gordon was away the unrest continued to mount, so much so that shortly after he returned, a delegation of faculty marched into his office saying they had lost confidence in his leadership and suggested he should resign. Later that day they delivered the same message to the Chair of the Board of Trustees. In a matter of hours, President Gordon resigned.
Could any such scenario occur on President Biden’s return? Of course not.
But I think I see similarities.
Dr. Gordon, despite unrest at the university, undertook what he thought was an important mission to India or at least he rationalized it that way.
President Biden believes it is important for him to be in Scotland for the climate summit but can he deliver an energizing, compelling and believable message about climate to world leaders given all the uncertainties that exist in Washington on that and other subjects.
In his Build Back Better plan the Climate Change still is a top priority, and that’s good but endless debate about it continues and seems likely to continue. What can he possibly say in Glasgow about our country’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions that is certain, rock solid?
How can he plead for world unity in addressing climate change when he does not have unity at home?
Given his preoccupation with the struggles in his own party, not to mention the opposition party, how seriously will delegates in Glasgow respond to whatever pledges and promises he makes when they know how unsettled and restless his colleagues in the House and Senate are.
When it comes to climate leadership on the international stage, the President’s proclamations may sound hollow and be overshadowed by what’s going on in Washington. I wish he had decided to stay home and taken care of business here, including the critical need to advance our own climate agenda. Such a decision would have underscored, in a dramatic way, his earnest commitment to leadership on the number one issue facing our country and the world.
Right now, the old saying seems timey: “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Let’s hope they don’t do too much damage in the President’s absence.
Ross Jones is a former vice president and secretary emeritus of The Johns Hopkins University. He joined the University in 1961 as assistant to President Milton S. Eisenhower. A 1953 Johns Hopkins graduate, he later earned a Master’s Degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.