If you’re like me, you’ve only recently heard of the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania, generously described in the press as a “think tank.”
My ignorance is instructive. You see, I’m somewhat of a connoisseur of think tanks. Some people are connoisseurs of the arts, food, fine wine, and even good cigars. But I, dear reader, have an odd expertise in think tanks. I’ve worked at, written for, and even written about think tanks. I’ve given lectures at and even lectures about think tanks in grad schools, describing these distinctive entities, left and right and center. I actually began my professional career at a think tank, the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Next week, I speak at the Heritage Foundation. I’ve been a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College, and countless state and local think tanks.
If you’ll indulge me a bit more, I can relate an anecdote about this strange career path. I recall telling my working-class, Italian Catholic grandmother and her sisters that I worked for a think tank, only to elicit a puzzled look. “Paulie,” my grandma asked, “where do you work in Washington, D.C.?” I named the place and explained, “It’s a think tank, grandma.” This prompted my crusty grandpa to snap, “What in the hell is a think tank?”
All of which is a perfect segue to the Penn Biden Center.
Given my over three decades of think tank experience, I hereby assert, definitively, with no embarrassment, that I had never heard of the Penn Biden Center until it exploded into the news. And I’m certain that that’s more a product of the Penn Biden Center than anything lacking in my studious cranium.
To borrow from my Papa, I found myself wondering, “What in the hell is the Penn Biden Center?”
So, I ventured to the website of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement. Alas, I remain even more in the dark. I found a few articles and what seem like press releases. I found no reports or policy papers, which is odd because such is the main product of a think tank.
I did, however, find Joe Biden — everywhere. Biden’s grinning mug is splashed all over the thing. When you first open the website, you see Biden. When you click the first heading, labeled, “We’re Focused On,” you’re assaulted with some mindless mishmash about “Advancing the Dialogue of Internationalism.” The viewer is greeted by — surprise — two photos, both of Joe Biden. The first is a photo of, quite appropriately, old Scranton Joe and China’s Xi taking a friendly stroll together at some bridge near Beijing.
I say appropriately because, as readers know, the only thing maybe worth knowing about the Penn Biden Center is its possible shady connections with Xi and China. That being the case, I’m sort of surprised that whoever runs the website left that photo posted. Then again, the academic world moves very slowly. Perhaps they’re on sabbatical.
The next two “We’re Focused On” headings talk about “Advancing Threats to the Liberal International Order” and “Engaging a New Generation.” In each of these, once again, all photos boast one common feature: Joe Biden.
If you click the “Our Vision” tab, it takes you to the center’s mission statement. That statement includes five short paragraphs of politically correct twaddle about the center’s dedication to a “democratic, open, secure, tolerant, and interconnected world benefits all Americans.” It concludes with a paragraph about the group’s grand namesake, one Joe Biden:
Throughout his decades of public service, the Center’s namesake, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has fought to secure American global leadership by defending and advancing a liberal international order. The Center will bring President Biden’s lifelong commitment to public service to its every endeavor.
The remainder of the page’s exciting mission statement is a longer section about — spoiler alert — the one and only: Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.
So, in sum, the Penn Biden Center is a monument to one man. It may shock Biden’s conservative detractors to hear this but, apparently, the heretofore alleged cognitively challenged president is, in fact, a one-man think tank.
Who would’ve thunk it?
Even progressives seem slightly annoyed. A January 2021 piece at the American Prospect, the left-wing periodical launched in the 1990s by Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, observes:
Three years ago, Joe Biden launched a center with his name on it through the University of Pennsylvania that’s just blocks from the Capitol. Since its opening, the Penn Biden Center’s office on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., has housed the future secretary of state, the president’s top adviser, and, not surprisingly, the future president himself. But for an organization with such high-profile alumni and staff, its mission is surprisingly unclear.
Well, not totally unclear. It’s about Joe Biden.
Of course, nothing I’ve said in this column gets to the core of why the Penn Biden Center is in the news. This time last year, my old friend and colleague Peter Schweizer released a major book, Red-Handed: How American Elites Get Rich Helping China Win, that reported on the stench of communist Chinese cash possibly connected to the center or the university. “The flow of money to the University of Pennsylvania should raise some eyebrows and offer cause as to who is financing the Biden Center’s Operations,” writes Schweizer. “One trend is unmistakable: after the Biden Center’s announcement that it was opening at the University of Pennsylvania, donations from the Chinese mainland to Penn almost tripled.”
According to Schweizer, that was in the amount of tens of millions of dollars.
It is indeed suspicious. It smells of corruption at the highest levels — government, Biden, and the already rotten higher-ed establishment. Speaking of which, the compassionate progressives at Penn charge your kid over $63,000 per year for tuition and fees (not including room and board). That itself is a scandal.
But back to the nuts and bolts: I’ve worked for think tanks with budgets under a million bucks that produced more in five months than the Penn Biden Center has done in five years. Chi-comm connections aside, let it be said that even the very essence of the Penn Biden Center as a think tank is questionable. Other than serving as a dubious tribute entity to Joe Biden, I don’t see this thing as doing much. Of course, in the world of academia, that would be no surprise. But in the world of think tanks, it is a surprise. There doesn’t seem to be much thinking going on at this think tank. Other than perhaps thoughts about the next big check.