President Joe Biden vowed to voters that he would always make it clear to them. But his bluntness keeps getting him into trouble.
Biden is about to speak “straight off the shoulder,” as he once said, about Taiwan, the pandemic, ex-President Donald Trump’s extreme MAGA supporters, and whether Vladimir Putin should lead Russia.
But every time he steps down the law, a White House official, Democratic lawmaker, or political ally explains that the president didn’t really say what everyone heard him say, or that he didn’t really mean what he was saying seemed.
Now all the tidying up begs the question of whether the walk-backs are doing more harm than the president’s initial outspokenness by undermining his authority.
Biden is a self-confessed gaffe machine — his loose tongue often landed him in hot water in the Senate and was the reason he was initially distrusted by some of the Obama administration’s aides as vice president. But Biden is now supreme commander and can say what he wants – until the cleanup begins.
This often comes across as disrespectful to the President. It looks like he doesn’t know his own mind or has strayed from a script set up for him by subordinates. It offers an opening for Republicans who have expressed doubts about his cognitive capacity and prime-time suitability. But the problem runs deeper: a president’s words resonate. In times of crisis, lives can be at stake. Your words move the markets. Being constantly corrected creates confusion about Biden’s authority and leadership.
Politicians often run for office and promise to say it is the way it is. Biden’s friend, the late Arizona Senator John McCain, for example, rode a Straight Talk Express to the 2008 Republican nomination. But honesty and bluntness are often not conducive to governing. If the big guy strays from the embassy, he can short-circuit the political machinery and undermine nuanced positions on Capitol Hill. Such was the case this week, when Biden’s declaration that the pandemic was over in a “60 Minutes” interview sparked a push by House and Senate Democrats for the White House’s own call for billions more dollars in Covid-19 -Funding undermined.
Biden sparked international controversy over his recent pledge to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion in the interview aired on Sunday. He has said something similar at least three times previously, trampling on the principle of “strategic ambiguity” that leaves opaque how the US would react. The policy is intended to make China think, but also to avoid giving the Taiwanese a sense of security that could spur a declaration of independence.
But every time Biden appears to have shifted the ball to Taiwan, his officials put it back.
There’s little doubt that Biden knew exactly what he was doing when, on “60 Minutes,” he answered “yes” to a precise question from CBS’ Scott Pelley about whether he would use US men and women to lead Taiwan to defend if attacked.
But National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan insisted on Tuesday that Biden has not changed policy, dismissing it as an answer to a “hypothetical” question, despite US intelligence believing China is building a force capable to take Taiwan.
“The President is a direct and straightforward person. He answered hypothetically. He’s answered it in a similar way before. And he also made it clear that he has not changed US policy towards Taiwan,” Sullivan told reporters.
Biden actually reiterated his support for the “One China” policy and other basic diplomatic texts with China in the interview. But Sullivan’s comment suggests there is a gap between US policy towards Taiwan and what Biden is saying. This will raise fears of misunderstandings that could be dangerous.
Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill argued Tuesday that strategic confusion can be a virtue — after all, China doesn’t stand a chance if Americans can’t figure out what the politics are.
“Even walking back it becomes strategic ambiguity, so I think it’s all part of the strategic ambiguity,” Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said Tuesday. His Connecticut Democratic counterpart, Senator Chris Murphy, also argued that this was less a split within the White House and more an example of strategic wisdom.
“Whether intentional or not, it certainly serves to keep China in the dark. And that’s the whole point of being able to defend Taiwan without making the explicit commitment first,” Murphy said.
But Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the uncertainty was damaging.
“You know, what are they going to think our policy is when the President of the United States says we’re going to go to war and that doesn’t match what anybody else says?”
“So it’s not good that China has to look at this.”
However, former Trump administration Secretary of Defense Mark Esper sought to co-opt the president into the hawkish camp who want tougher Taiwan policy.
“He’s said it four times now, I think he’s spot on and they’re not trying to downplay it, they’re trying to completely undermine him by saying there’s no change in policy,” Esper told Jake Tapper of CNN. “We must move away from strategic ambiguity if we are to prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.”
It is not the first time that the president’s plain language speech has resonated abroad.
In March he said in Warsaw that Putin “cannot remain in power”. The White House rushed to explain that the President was not talking about regime change. And foreign policy experts accuse him of personalizing the feud with Putin over Ukraine. But Biden’s comment has aged well, at least as a moral judgement. And the president has even assiduously avoided testing Putin’s invisible red lines, which could trigger a clash with NATO.
In fact, his dig at Putin pales in comparison to the excesses of some of his predecessors, including former President Donald Trump, who boasted of having a “much bigger” and “stronger” nuclear button than North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. And in 1984, a leaked joke during a microphone test by President Ronald Reagan about the US beginning to bomb Russia “in five minutes” caused an uproar.
But Biden’s plain text is not only causing problems abroad. His remark in the 60 Minutes interview that the “pandemic was over” roiled government health officials, seemed to anger Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have pleaded for more aid and offered Republicans an opening. Biden conditioned his remark by saying that Covid-19 is still a problem and there is work to be done. But it again prompted officials to try to rephrase exactly what he meant, drawing criticism from epidemiologists.
“What the President is reflecting on is the fact that we have made tremendous progress against Covid-19. We are in a very different place now than when this pandemic began,” said Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told MSNBC in an attempt to mitigate Biden’s remark without contradicting him.
The impression that Biden’s remark was a thoughtless rather than a considered strategy was reinforced Tuesday night when Biden took over Murthy’s framing at a fundraiser in New York.
Some medical experts warned that the president has discounted coronavirus deaths each week, roughly equivalent to the 9/11 toll. They said their metrics didn’t justify declaring the pandemic over. And they feared Biden had hurt efforts to encourage people to empower themselves.
Check out the late-night reactions to President Biden claiming the pandemic is over
But Biden could also be right. For many Americans, save for the sick and vulnerable, the pandemic – as originally experienced in the depths of 2020 – is over. The disease is now becoming endemic and thanks to vaccines, life is returning to normal for many people. Sports stadiums are crowded with maskless fans. Nations like New Zealand and Australia, which have closed themselves off from the world, have eased travel restrictions. Only China is sticking to its “zero Covid” policy – apparently to spare the embarrassment of the hardliners who ordered it.
Still, Biden has caused a major political headache as the administration asks Congress for an additional $22.4 billion for Covid containment efforts.
“We need more sources to make sure it’s over,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday.
“Covid isn’t over yet,” said Kaine, the Virginia Democrat, adding, “We need help.”
But Republicans like Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who is a member of his party’s leadership, jumped at the moment: “When it’s over, I wouldn’t think they’d need more money.”
Biden’s habit of making bold statements that get clarified could also haunt him on the campaign trail. Last month, in an offhand comment, he described Trump’s “extreme MAGA philosophy” as “semi-fascism.”
Even some Democrats thought he went too far, and Biden seems to agree that he stumbled into a Hillary Clinton-style “basket of deplorable” faux pas. He hasn’t used the construction since, insisting that only extreme MAGA voters, not all Republicans, are bad.
But everyone now knows what they really think. The same could be true for Taiwan, although Sullivan insisted in the White House that what Biden said doesn’t count.
“If the President of the United States wants to announce a change in policy, he will. He didn’t do that,” the national security adviser said.
But after so many unequivocal statements and backtracking, how is anyone supposed to be sure they’re doing it?