Joe Biden's Verbal Miscues Are Not Strategic
His propensity to make off the cuff remarks is careless, not a chess move
When Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” during a speech in 1987 at Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, it hardly registered a ripple in the news. It didn’t get front-page coverage, and nightly news shows ignored it. There is also some myth-making involved with people saying State Department weenies kept removing the line and Reagan kept putting it back in, but I can’t find anything to corroborate that. In reality, John Kornblum and his team conceived it as a cold-war slogan.
Of course, what makes it so memorable is that the Berlin Wall did fall a little over two years later, and the rest was history. But the line itself was not an ad-hoc moment. Reagan stuck to the script.
So when I see people trying to compare President Biden’s obvious ad-libbed moments in speeches as a brilliant strategic move to “keep Putin guessing,” I can’t do anything other than shake my head at the absurdity of it all.
The latest one comes from Biden’s speech at the Warsaw Castle in Poland. The intent of the address was to show how the United States and its allies were united in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with Russian armed forces.
Everything went well until the end. As Biden wrapped up, he said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Oopsy. Regime change, anyone?
And then the White House staff responded, “Yo! Hold up! Time out! TIME OUT! Y’all take a chill! Ya need to cool that s**t out! And that’s the double truth, Ruth!”
That was actually Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) in Do The Right Thing!, but the point stands. The staffer actually said, “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change.”
I’ve watched as some people have defended what Biden did. First, there is Max Boot, who spends nearly half of his latest column entitled, Biden’s support for Ukraine and opposition to Putin were no ‘gaffe’ talking about Donald Trump (shocker!). Now, the title is a prominent straw man. No one said Biden’s support for Ukraine or opposition to Putin was “a gaffe.” I wouldn’t categorize what Biden said as a gaffe. When he said you can’t go into “a 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent,” — that was a gaffe.
Whatever one wants to call it, Boot’s attempt to make it into something positive goes overboard when he writes:
Yet I wonder if perhaps history will vindicate this Biden “gaffe” in much the way that many historians have praised comments by President Ronald Reagan that were once seen as dangerously provocative. Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and predicted it would wind up on the “ash-heap of history.”
There’s one striking difference between what Biden and Reagan said: those words weren’t inserted by Reagan on the fly. Instead, his speechwriters included them on purpose. It was by design.
My friend Joe Scarborough thinks it was deliberate on Biden’s part:
I'm afraid I have to disagree. If it were deliberate, Biden wouldn’t have staff running out to say, “Well, what he actually meant was _______.”
Congressman Ted Lieu said the following:
Lionel Barber @lionelbarberBiden’s “regime change” gaffe is a one day story. Putin’s barbaric, unprovoked war against Ukraine goes on and on. Time for some perspective from BBC and other news outlets
Forget for a moment the debate over whether or not it is a “gaffe.” Still, Lieu claims Biden’s advisors objected to him saying it. He said it anyway, and then the same people ran out to say that isn’t what Biden meant. Where is the leadership if his underlings will undermine him so easily? And if he did mean it, why not say, “Come on, Jack! I said what I meant, and I meant what I said!”
It’s reminiscent of what happened when Trump was president. He’d say something dumb, and people would fall on their sword defending it (knowing it was bad) even if someone in the White House walked it back.
It didn’t get better when Biden took some questions from the press about his recent statements. When Biden addressed the Army’s 82nd Airborne division in Poland, he said “when you’re there,” referring to Ukraine. Peter Doocy asked about it, and Biden claimed he was saying that to Ukrainian troops training in Poland. His staff then had to clarify that explanation. Read this remarkable line from CNN:
A White House official told CNN later Monday that there are Ukrainian soldiers in Poland who are interacting on a regular basis with US troops, which is what Biden had referred to earlier in the day when he had sought to explain his previous remark.
When questioned about saying Putin can no longer remain in power, Biden said he was merely expressing his “outrage” over Putin’s behavior. Oh, really? I thought it was strategic in that he was trying to keep Putin guessing? His staff gave a different explanation initially.
Bizarrely, people who want to defend Biden do so in the context of comparing him to Trump. I say it’s bizarre because why would anyone want to use Trump as a benchmark for competence and leadership? It’s akin to boasting that your shortstop’s .200 batting average because it’s so much better than the previous guy and his .150 average. Instead, people framed Biden not as a nominal improvement over Trump but as someone vastly superior in all facets of what people want in a president.
Additionally, Biden’s claim of expressing outrage at Putin’s actions is not something that speaks well to the president’s temperament. In times of crisis, the expectation we have of leaders is resolute, disciplined, and measured in their words.
What Biden said about Putin will not keep the Kremlin strongman “guessing.” What it did do was give Putin a propaganda talking point. The war is not going how Putin hoped. If NATO will not enter the conflict, the only way out of it is for de-escalation on the part of Russia. If Putin thinks his power is at stake, it could force him to get desperate, and who knows what happens then.