“He’s been working just like he does, like he’s always done: He’s steady,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) who served with Biden on Judiciary and hailed both Biden’s pick of Jackson and his handling of the crisis in Ukraine. And while Biden has faced criticism that his Senate tenure can make him too accommodating — too vested in forging consensus — at a time when bolder, quicker action is needed, Simpson saw that background as an asset in difficult times.
“He’s doing as best he can in a miserable pile of crap,” he said. “That’s what he’s doing.”
Biden’s service on the Foreign Relations Committee expanded nearly the entire time he was in the Senate. He started in 1975, served as ranking member from 1997 to 2001 and 2003 to 2007 and chair from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009, when he left the chamber to serve as vice president. While there, he emerged as a vocal advocate for U.S. engagement in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, pressing to prevent the killing of innocents in Bosnia and Kosovo and pushing in the ‘90s to expand NATO and bring in former Warsaw Pact countries. He also played major roles in both Iraq wars, the second of which dogged him throughout the remainder of his career.
Biden’s critics on the left previously cited his long tenure in the Senate as proof that he was too prone to get involved in intractable issues overseas and too self-confident in his own worldview. But those traits have also manifested themselves in ways that have pleased progressives, including his insistence and repeated defense of his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan last summer. And they extend to the current situation in Ukraine, which Biden and his team view as the fulfillment of a decades-long belief in multilateralism and strong international institutions.
“President Biden was built for this moment, because of his long experience in foreign policy, and specifically his relationship with NATO countries and his understanding of the region,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden’s time on the Foreign Relations Committee didn’t just help him hone his worldview. It also enabled him to make connections to world leaders that have come in handy in the White House.
“Just about all leaders of Europe at one time were parliamentarians, they were a member of the parliament, and they had inter-parliamentary meetings and Joe Biden was doing those meetings and meeting with those folks since 1976,” said his longtime Senate chief of staff, former Sen. Ted Kaufman. “If you are a governor or new Senator, you are not going to be very knowledgeable on foreign policy issues. But, President Biden spent over 30 years working on foreign policy issues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”
Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden has leaned on the multilateralism approach he came to value while serving on the Foreign Relations Committee. His focus, aides say, has been on keeping allies united — often to the chagrin of critics who want quicker U.S. action — and not asking them to do something outside the realm of possibility, said Louisa Terrell, Biden’s director of the Office of Legislative Affairs. Those currently on the committee where Biden once served see a throughline between his time there and his conduct now.
“This is the moment that Americans were thinking of when they decided to put [Biden] in the White House and he’s met and exceeded their expectations,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “This is why you put somebody with his kind of experience in the White House because he’s gonna know what to do at a moment like this.”
It could also present Biden with an opportunity to rebuild trust not just with the American public but with allies abroad after the calamitous exit from Afghanistan. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he spoke to many ambassadors, and former foreign and defense ministers last summer who were shocked by what unfolded.
“They felt this administration, this president…this is the pro, I mean, how could this happen with Biden in charge?” said Hagel. “Well, it did happen, and not all of it was the administration’s fault but I think it could have been handled a lot, lot cleaner, and a lot better. And he suffered because of that.”
So far, Hagel said, Biden’s handling of Russian aggression has been spot on, “building back some confidence and trust.”
“I’ve been all over the world with him, many, many times. And he studied [geopolitics]. I mean, he really did study it,” said Hagel. The former senator sat on the Foreign Relations Committee with Biden before serving alongside him in the Obama administration. He said he never saw Biden become “captive” to his experience.
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Biden’s tenure on the Foreign Relations Committee is matched only by his time on Judiciary. Starting on that committee in 1977, he was intimately involved in seven confirmation fights, including the hearings for Thomas. Those were marked by fireworks on the all-white and male panel and resulted in longstanding critiques of Biden for his treatment of Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Biden was widely seen as fumbling that moment in a desire to appear fair to both parties, and for failing to call additional witnesses who could have corroborated Hill’s claims. He has since expressed his regrets. But Hill wants the president to do more to prioritize ending gender violence.
Biden’s time on Judiciary — more than 30 years — was so long that he overlapped with now-Justice Elena Kagan, outgoing Justice Stephen Breyer and former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala)., all of whom once worked for the committee. But his approach to the confirmation process dates back to his first year as chair, said Peck, who worked for Biden from 1987 to 1992 as general counsel and then majority staff director on the committee. When President George H.W. Bush nominated David Souter to the high court, Democrats quickly said he should be opposed, Peck recalled. Biden ultimately supported confirmation.
“It would have been easy for Joe Biden at that point to go along with kind of the reflexive reaction of a number of Democrats,” Peck said. “But rather than doing that, he said, ‘No, wait a second. We’re going to take some time here. I’m going to study David Souter’s record.’”
In nominating Jackson, Biden is hoping that he can use his relations in the Senate and his experiences on Judiciary to win over some Republican support. So far, he’s called Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.) three times to discuss the Supreme Court vacancy. He reminds his staff frequently that “every single senator is due [a] show of both respect and deference,” said Terrell.
Those who’ve known Biden since his early Senate days say he’s not naive about the modern Republican party. “I don’t think he’s living in the past,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law scholar and Biden confidante. “He would love to have as much bipartisan support as possible but he has no illusions.”
Current and former aides say one benefit of Biden’s experience is that he has a Rolodex of people to call when he wants to talk through a nominee’s record and interpretations of the Constitution. Tribe is one such expert to whom Biden has turned. He recalled that during the failed Bork nomination, Biden found the nominee’s statement that serving on the court would be an “intellectual feast” to be especially “troublesome.”
The idea that somebody wants to exercise power over others because it would be “fun as opposed to because it might help people lead lives that are more free and inclusive” didn’t square well with Biden, Tribe said.
Thirty-five years later, Biden’s current and former staffers say that all that time studying constitutional law and the Supreme Court confirmation process equipped Biden for his own nominee selection process. Kaufman described the rollout of Jackson’s nomination as “a well-oiled machine.”
“It looks simple now but that’s because he knew what to look for; what to ask for, what to be on the listen for to get around potential problems,” a former top Judiciary staffer said.
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The two worlds that Biden occupied when serving on Judiciary and Foreign Relations often overlapped and interfered with each other. In 2005, as Biden considered Roberts’ nomination one of his Foreign Relations staffers would frequently wait for him to exit briefings to discuss committee actions, recalled Terrell, who served as deputy chief of staff and counsel to Biden on the Judiciary Committee at the time.
Others remembered how years before the Roberts confirmation battle, Biden sat for hours with close Judiciary aides mulling over policy only to leap from his seat when foreign affairs aides interrupted them with an update that they didn’t think could wait.
“One of the things we always had to do when we were working on Judiciary was pull him away from Foreign Relations. He was always juggling both of them constantly,” said Victoria Nourse, Biden’s top lawyer on the panel in the early 1990s who later went on to serve as his chief counsel in the Vice President’s office. “It’s normal for him. It was normal 30 years ago, even before the vice presidency.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall left a particular impression on Biden aides. Not merely because of how preoccupied he was with it, but because the natural workload of the two committees meant he was forced to balance the reordering of Europe with court nominations and sweeping legislation to address rising crime, the proliferation of illegal drugs and the scourge of guns.
“The Judiciary committee work — nominations, criminal justice policy, drug policy — for a long time it took more of his time,” another longtime Biden staffer who worked closely with him at the time remembered in a recent interview. “It was always my belief that the foreign policy questions are the ones that captured his imagination.”
Ultimately, when Biden in 2001 was given a choice to again helm the Judiciary Committee or chair the Foreign Relations Committee, he picked the latter.
The same tug and pull is happening now. Russia’s war in Ukraine is rapidly reshaping Biden’s presidency. And it’s taking up his time. But not all of it. Terrell says she will wait outside the Oval Office as her national security colleagues leave the room in order for her and others on her team to give Biden an update on his Supreme Court nominee’s meetings with senators and preparation.
“He’s just able to do this back and forth so smoothly and so expertly and that really has again been something that is a byproduct of what he was doing so well when he was in the Senate,” said Terrell. “These two trains are running at the same time. There really is no one else who is better suited to drive them at the same time.”