Let Biden be Biden
Hours after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, with very little time to prepare, President Biden expressed the nation’s outrage in a televised prime-time address: “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” he asked. “When in God’s name will we do what we all know needs to be done?”
Biden’s words met the moment. Polling conducted after the massacre found that 88 percent approve of required background checks on all gun sales; 84 percent support preventing firearm sales to anyone declared dangerous by a mental health provider to law enforcement; 81 percent believe that private gun sales and sales at gun shows should be subject to background checks; 77 percent support requiring gun owners to store their weapons in a safe storage unit; 75 percent want a national database containing information about each gun sale; and 67 percent approve of banning assault-style weapons.
Biden’s outrage was not the first time he recently captured the mood of the country. After visiting Ukrainian refugees in Poland, Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “For God’s sake this man cannot remain in power.” During his visit to Asia, Biden was asked if the United States would, if necessary, militarily defend Taiwan and answered, “That’s the commitment we made.”
In both cases, administration officials were quick to declare that U.S. policy toward Russia and China remained unchanged. But Biden’s answers were strategic. When asked whether Putin would escalate the war following Biden’s condemnation, the president responded: “I don’t care what he thinks. He’s going to do what he’s going to do.”
Pundit Joe Scarborough reacted to Biden’s announcement, saying, “Thank you,” adding that it’s about time for Putin to care what Biden thinks. His “Morning Joe”co-host, Mika Brzezinski, echoed her endorsement of Biden’s candor, saying, “It only gets better.” As for Taiwan, Biden put China on notice that any invasion would have consequences. As Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) noted, “The time for ambiguity is over.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) agreed, “The bullies of the world need to know we’re going to take a stand.”
The Biden White House has often been overly protective of a president who once described himself as a “gaffe machine.” Biden has been known to speak off-the-cuff, making remarks that later had to be clarified. Biden is hardly the first president to be gaffe prone. During his 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan declared that the Vietnam War was a “noble cause,” expressed doubts about the theory of evolution and claimed that 80 percent of air pollution was caused by plants and trees, prompting his press secretary, James Brady, to joke about “killer trees.”
Jimmy Carter’s chief strategist, Hamilton Jordan, was thrilled, “For two weeks, it was delicious, watching Reagan on the news each night stumble from one controversy to another, doing what we had thought we’d have to do — making him, not the president, the issue.” Reagan’s staff staged an intervention, and thereafter the candidate stuck to the script.
During Reagan’s presidency, conservatives were fond of the refrain “Let Reagan Be Reagan.” They believed Reagan was being muzzled from saying what he really believed. They were right. When it came to the most memorable lines of the Reagan years, his staff attempted to edit his remarks. For example, at his first press conference in 1981, Reagan declared that the “only morality” the Soviet Union recognizes “is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.”
Two years later, Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” whose communist ideology “is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.” In 1988, Reagan delivered a powerful address standing before the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin Wall and spoke these memorable lines: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Each time, Reagan’s staff argued that those words should not be spoken, and each time, Reagan resisted. Today, those phrases are among the best-remembered and most often-quoted of the Reagan presidency.
Like Reagan, another president ignored his advisers and said what he believed. In 1948, facing insuperable odds of winning reelection, President Truman boarded a train and began a grueling nationwide tour. Up to then, Truman would woodenly read his prepared speeches, demonstrating none of the artistry Franklin D. Roosevelt had in delivering his fireside chats. But at each whistlestop, armed with a few note cards and no script, Truman would speak extemporaneously, introducing his wife, Bess, as “the boss,” and his daughter, Margaret, as “the boss’s boss.” Truman then made his case for more New Deal and Fair Deal legislation before the throngs who came out to see him. Remarkably, he beat the odds-on-favorite, Thomas E. Dewey, whom the pundits crowned the winner before a single vote was cast.
Joe Biden, Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman were powerful general election candidates. Like Reagan, Biden has never lost a general election. Truman lost only once, in 1924, thanks to an internal Democratic Party feud that cost him votes. The lesson for the Biden White House is clear: Let Biden be Biden.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?”