Rhetorical cleanups pile up for an emotionally undisciplined Biden

President Joe Biden speaks about his proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 in the State Dining Room of the White House
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

President Biden has always been a gaffe machine. No news there. 

Before he was president, Biden was usually forgiven for saying something profoundly odd or patently wrong because he was “only” a senator or vice president at the time, so his bumbling rhetoric didn’t have any true consequences on the world stage. 

But now Biden is commander in chief at a time when having command of his words is chiefly important. Russia continues its insidious invasion of Ukraine by targeting women and children while threatening the West with nukes. North Korea has resumed its nuclear missile testing program. And China is eyeing up Taiwan while sensing weakness from the American president. 

So, when Biden went to Brussels and Poland last week to meet with NATO and U.S. troops, his word choice should have been a little more judicious, to say the least.  

But that didn’t happen. 

Gaffe #1, March 25:

You’re going to see when you’re there [in Ukraine], and some of you have been there, you’re gonna see — you’re gonna see women, young people standing in the middle in front of a damned tank just saying, ‘I’m not leaving, I’m holding my ground,’” Biden said to members of the U.S. Air Force’s 82nd Airborne Division last week.  

So, wait: Did Biden say that at some point U.S. ground troops will be going into Ukraine to battle the Russians? Wouldn’t that possibly spur a nuclear response from Russian President Vladimir Putin? 

“The president has been clear we are not sending U.S. troops to Ukraine and there is no change in that position,” a White House spokesperson later clarified.  

Gaffe #2, March 25: 

During a press conference in Brussels on March 24, Biden was asked what would happen if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine.

Reporter: “On chemical weapons: If chemical weapons were used in Ukraine, would that trigger a military response from NATO?”
 
Biden: “It would re— it would trigger a response in kind, whether or not — you’re asking whether NATO would cross; we’d make that decision at the time.” 

There’s no other way to interpret the president’s remarks: If Putin uses chemical weapons in Ukraine, the U.S. would use chemical weapons against Russia. Yikes.

Enter national security adviser Jake Sullivan. 

“The United States has no intention of using chemical weapons, period, under any circumstance,” Sullivan clarified when speaking with reporters on Air Force One later that day. 

“I will just say, with respect to any use of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, biological – Russia would pay a severe price,” Sullivan later added without being specific about what that “severe price” would be. 

Gaffe #3, March 27:

“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said of Putin during a speech in Warsaw. 

But was this a gaffe? Or did Biden really mean it? 

If it was a gaffe, it was a bad one. If he meant it, that might be even worse. Because regime change in a large (nuclear) country could have severe consequences. 

Biden was asked about his Putin “cannot remain in power” remark several times while taking questions from reporters, first from NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell.  

O’Donnell: “Do you believe what you said — that Putin can’t remain in power? Or do you now regret saying that?  Because your government has been trying to walk that back. Did your words complicate matters?

Biden: “Number one, I’m not walking anything back. The fact of the matter is I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward the way Putin is dealing, and the actions of this man — just — just the brutality of it.”  

The president added that he wasn’t “articulating a policy change.”

Note: Biden read part of his answers directly from a notecard titled “Tough Putin Q&A Talking Points.” A photo of the notecard was taken by the European Pressphoto Agency. 

Biden made several statements during his trip to Brussels and Poland amid the Russia-Ukraine war. Each time, a White House spokesperson or Cabinet member later “clarified” his remarks. 

And then the president insisted nothing had been walked back even though it had. 

Will his aides be forced to walk back his dismissal of a walk back? 

Regardless, the president’s words have consequences. And not just with our allies and adversaries, but also politically back home. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that Biden’s statement was “certainly alarming” and that the Kremlin will “continue to track” statements from the U.S. president, according to Reuters. 

“This speech – and the passages which concern Russia – is astounding, to use polite words,” Peskov added. “He doesn’t understand that the world is not limited to the United States and most of Europe.”

Back home, an NBC News poll released Sunday shows an overwhelming number of Americans, 82 percent, are concerned that Russia-Ukraine will result in the use of nuclear weapons, while nearly three in four say they fear the U.S. military will end up fighting in Ukraine. And Biden telling U.S. troops they will be in Ukraine one day or saying we’ll use chemical weapons or appearing to argue for Russian regime change only fuels the public’s fears.  

The same NBC poll found that a startling seven in 10 Americans don’t have confidence in the president’s “ability to deal with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” 

His performance in Brussels and Poland didn’t help. And all the cleanups by his lieutenants isn’t going to change a growing perception: that this president simply doesn’t have the competence or mental sharpness to lead this country, particularly at this moment when every word he utters is parsed for meaning.

Of course, maybe that competence, especially on foreign policy, has never been there. 

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said of Biden in his book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” in 2014 while Biden was vice president. 

Biden voted against the first Gulf War, which was successful and just (removing Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait). He voted for the second Gulf War, which was largely unsuccessful and unjust (weapons of mass destruction were never found). And when President Obama asked if a raid to take out Osama Bin Laden should be carried out, Biden said no. 

The commander in chief needs to step up his game. He needs to measure his words more carefully. But if 50 years in the public eye are any indication, don’t bet on that happening. 

Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist

Tags Barack Obama Biden; Joe Biden Foreign policy of the Joe Biden administration Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Joe Biden gaffes Presidency of Joe Biden Russia-Ukraine war Vladimir Putin

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