Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Biden: The Administration’s Split Personality

Photo by Henry Van der Weyde – Public Domain

The Biden administration has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), defined as “a rare condition in which two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in—and alternately take control of—an individual.” DID “reflects a failure to integrate various aspects of identity, memory, and consciousness into a single multidimensional self.”Manifestations of Biden’s political DID are: On the domestic side, the Biden administration has gotten passed impressive progressive legislation, such as the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure law, and the $700 billion climate and health bill.

The other distinct identity is on foreign policy. There, it has entered into a cold war with China, spent billions sending weapons to fight the Russians in Ukraine as part of a ballooning defense budget, and refused to re-work the cancelled Iran nuclear deal. Biden’s conservative foreign policies have been likened to “Trump with manners.”

How to understand this rare condition of two distinct personalities? More importantly, is there a cure?

Why some people develop DID is not entirely understood. One can only speculate about Biden’s reasons for his split personality. One would imagine that Biden would promote a given domestic agenda to please his electoral interests. But this does not seem to be the case since his progressive domestic policies have not helped his popularity. His poll figures remain quite low, well under 50%, and a considerable part of the population does not want him to run again in 2024.

But the facts about the economy under Biden are quite positive. According to Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman, “Since December 2021 the U.S. economy has added almost six million jobs while the unemployment rate has fallen from 3.9 percent to 3.4 percent, a level not seen since the 1960s… The inflation rate over the past six months was 3.3 percent, compared with 9.6 percent last June.” Whatever progressive domestic success he has had has not resonated with voters.

It is against Biden’s progressive domestic policies that his conservative foreign policies should be compared, almost as differentiated as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde.

In his first major foreign policy address on February 5, 2021, Biden talked of a “reset” of priorities post-Trump, pledging to strengthen alliances through diplomacy while promoting democratic values. Two years into his term, there is little to see how he has distanced himself from Trump’s America First. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal; Biden has not reset this button. As Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in his address to the U.N. in September 2021, invoking their campaign slogans: “The world doesn’t care about ‘America First’ or ‘America is Back.’”

The list of Biden’s conservative policies is impressive. As for promoting democratic values, Biden went to Riyadh and fist-pumped Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite Biden’s earlier promise to make the nation a “pariah” for human rights violations such as the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Under Biden, the U.S. continues the Trump-era policy of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with no major diplomatic initiative to break tensions between Israel and Palestinians. As for strengthening alliances, the Biden administration stabbed France in the back over the nuclear submarine deal with the U.K. and Australia. China is another example of repressive policies. Biden has kept Trump-era tariffs on China and continues to saber rattle by send naval ships through the Taiwan Strait.

What ever happened to shuttle and ping pong diplomacy? Sorry to seem nostalgic for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, but Biden and his team’s lack of diplomatic initiatives merits some comparison with previous ground-breaking efforts, no matter who initiated them.

Is there a treatment for DID? In the journal Psychology Today, it is suggested that: “The primary treatment for dissociative identity disorder is long-term psychotherapy with the goal of deconstructing the different personalities and integrating them into one.” Optimistically, it is noted, “With proper treatment, many people who are impaired by DID experience improvement in their ability to function in their work and personal lives.”

But we’re not talking about an individual, we’re talking about the president of the United States. The “ability to function in their work and personal lives” is of major national and global concern, not just personal well-being. One possible treatment, as has been suggested by Peter Beinart, would be for Biden to have a primary challenger before the 2024 election. According to Beinart, Biden has “largely ignored progressives, who, polls suggest, want a fundamentally different approach to the world. And he’ll keep ignoring them until a challenger turns progressive discontent into votes.”

Is it reasonable to assume a progressive will challenge Biden on America’s position in the world? Foreign affairs are not high in national polls. Be it gas prices, COVID-19, inflation, or migrants trying to enter the U.S., domestic interests predominate. No one is going to win in 2024 invoking a missile gap such as John Kennedy used in his 1960 presidential campaign, or ending some endless war in Afghanistan, or brokering peace deals in the Middle East or with China.

The recent White House announcement that President Biden will cut short his Asia-Pacific trip to return to Washington after the G7 summit confirms the secondary role of foreign policy. Instead of visiting Papua New Guinea – the first time a U.S. president would visit a Pacific Island country – and then going on to Australia to meet with allies Japan, India, and Australia, Biden will return to Washington to resume debt ceiling negotiations.

So, the double challenge is to get foreign affairs on the radar as well as establishing a progressive “single multidimensional self” in the Administration’s policies. While there have been surprises domestically, there seems little reason to imagine more dramatic changes internationally. If individual treatment focuses on “ long-term psychotherapy with the goal of deconstructing the different personalities and integrating them into one,” to change an Administration’s policies in the short term is more challenging with no psychotherapist available.

But it can be done. In order to merge the different personalities into one, foreign policy should be linked to domestic values. Or, if you prefer, domestic values should be projected onto foreign policy. There is no reason why what is illegal within the United States should be permitted by the United States outside its borders. The U.S. should recognize it has extraterritorial obligations in more than a technical sense. For example: the Biden’s team should work to confront authoritarian regimes, including Israel, on issues of human rights while trying to find issues of collaboration such as climate change or reducing nuclear arsenals. The more than 800 American bases in 70 countries can be reduced and the Guantanamo prison closed. Both reflect the negative side of DID.

In Stevenson’s novella, the good Dr. Jekyll resolved to stop becoming the evil Mr. Hyde. To that end he drank a serum. In the end, the serum didn’t work. Overcome with shame, the good Dr. Jeykll committed suicide. The evil Mr. Hyde won out.

What about it Mr. President? Dr. Jeykll or Mr. Biden? A split personality or “a single multidimensional self” based on progressive values?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.