President Joe Biden vowed to voters that he would always give it to them straight. But his blunt talk keeps getting him into trouble.
Biden is on a streak of talking “straight from the shoulder,” as he once said, on Taiwan, the pandemic, ex-President Donald Trump’s extreme MAGA supporters and whether Vladimir Putin should be leading Russia.
But each time he lays down the law, some White House official, Democratic lawmaker or political ally explains that the President didn’t actually say what everyone heard him say, or that he didn’t actually mean what he appeared to.
Now, all the mopping up is raising the question of whether the walk-backs are doing more damage than the President’s initial frankness by undermining his authority.
Biden is a self-admitted gaffe machine – his loose tongue often got him into hot water in the Senate and that was why he was initially mistrusted by some Obama administration aides as vice president. But Biden is now the commander in chief and can say what he wants – until the clean-up operation kicks into action.
Often, this comes across as disrespectful to the President. It makes it look like he doesn’t know his own mind, or has strayed from a script that subordinates set for him. It offers an opening for Republicans who cast doubt on his cognitive capacity and his fitness for prime time. But the problem also runs deeper: A president’s words resonate. In times of crisis, lives can be on the line. Their words move markets. Being constantly corrected sows confusion about Biden’s authority and leadership.
Politicians often run for office promising to tell it as it is. Biden’s friend, the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, for instance, rode his way to the 2008 Republican nomination aboard a “Straight Talk Express.” But honesty and bluntness are often not conducive to governing. When the big guy strays off message, he can short-circuit political machinery and can undermine nuanced positions on Capitol Hill. This was the case this week, when Biden’s declaration that the pandemic was over in a “60 Minutes” interview undermined a push by House and Senate Democrats for the White House’s own request for billions of dollars more in Covid-19 funding.
Biden set off an international controversy over his latest pledge, in the interview broadcast on Sunday, to defend Taiwan if China invaded. He’s said something similar at least three previous times, trampling all over the principle of “strategic ambiguity” that leaves opaque how the US would respond. The policy is designed to make China think twice but also to avoid giving the Taiwanese a sense of security that could spur an independence declaration.
But each time Biden has apparently moved the ball on Taiwan, his officials put it back.
There is little doubt that Biden knew exactly what he was doing when he replied “yes” to a precise question from CBS’ Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” about whether he would deploy US men and women to defend Taiwan if it was invaded.
But national security adviser Jake Sullivan insisted on Tuesday that Biden had not changed policy and dismissed it as an answer to a “hypothetical” question, even though US intelligence thinks China is building a force capable of taking Taiwan.
“The President is a direct and straightforward person. He answered a hypothetical. He’s answered it before in a similar way. And he has also been clear that he has not changed US policy towards Taiwan,” Sullivan told reporters.
Biden did indeed reaffirm his support in the interview for the “One China” policy and other foundational diplomatic texts with China. But Sullivan’s comment suggests there is a gap between what US policy is towards Taiwan and what Biden says it is. That 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, if Americans can’t work out what the policy is then China has no chance.
“Even a walk back, it becomes strategic ambiguity, so I think it’s all part of strategic ambiguity,” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said Tuesday. His Democratic colleague from Connecticut, Sen. Chris Murphy, also made the case that this is less a disconnect inside the White House than an example of strategic shrewdness.
“Whether it’s intentional or not, it certainly serves the purpose of keeping China guessing. And that’s the whole point, is to be in a position to defend Taiwan without making the explicit promise ahead of time,” Murphy said.
But Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the uncertainty was damaging.
“You know, what are they going to think is our policy if they have the President of the United States saying we will go to war and that’s not consistent with what anyone else is saying?”
“So it’s not a good thing for China to have to look at.”
Former Trump administration Defense Secretary Mark Esper, however, sought to co-opt the President into the camp of hawks who want a 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 to say there’s no policy change,” Esper told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “We need to move away from strategic ambiguity if we are going to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.”
It’s not the first time the President’s plain talk has reverberated abroad.
In Warsaw in March, he said 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 faulted him for personalizing the feud with Putin over Ukraine. But Biden’s comment has aged well, at least as a moral judgment. And the President has actually assiduously avoided testing Putin’s invisible red lines that could trigger a clash with NATO.
In fact, his swipe at Putin pales in comparison to the intemperance of some of his predecessors, including former President Donald Trump, who boasted about having a “much bigger” and “more powerful” nuclear button than North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. And in 1984, a leaked joke made during a microphone test by President Ronald Reagan about the US beginning the bombing of Russia “in five minutes” caused an uproar.
But Biden’s straight talk isn’t just causing problems abroad. His remark in the “60 Minutes” interview that the “pandemic is over” set government public health officials scrambling, seemed to annoy Democrats on Capitol Hill who have argued for more aid and offered Republicans an opening. Biden did condition his remark by saying that Covid-19 is still a problem and there is a lot of work to do. But he again caused officials to try and reframe exactly what he meant and stirred criticism from epidemiologists.
“What the President is reflecting is the fact that we’ve made tremendous progress against Covid-19. We’re in a very different place now than we were at the beginning of this pandemic,” Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told MSNBC in an attempt to defuse Biden’s remark without contradicting him.
The impression that Biden’s remark was a rash aside rather than a considered strategy was bolstered on Tuesday night when Biden adopted Murthy’s framing at a fundraiser in New York.
Some medical experts warned that the President had discounted coronavirus deaths roughly equivalent to the toll of September, 11, 2001 every week. They said their metrics didn’t justify declaring the pandemic over. And they worried that Biden had harmed efforts to encourage people to get boosted.
See late night reactions to President Biden claiming the pandemic is over
Yet Biden might also be right. For many Americans, the sick and vulnerable aside, the pandemic – as it was originally experienced in the depths of 2020 – has ended. 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 cut themselves off from the world, have relaxed travel restrictions. Only China is sticking with its “zero-Covid” policy — apparently to spare the embarrassment of the hardline leaders who mandated it.
Still, Biden did create a huge political headache since the administration is asking Congress for another $22.4 billion for Covid mitigation efforts.
“We need some more sources to be sure that it’s over,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday.
“Covid is not over,” Kaine, the Virginia Democrat said, adding, “We need aid.”
But Republicans like Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who is a member of his party’s leadership, seized the moment: “If it’s over, then I wouldn’t suspect they need any more money.”
Biden’s habit of making bold statements that get clarified may also haunt him on the campaign trail. Last month, in an off-the-cuff 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 blundered into a Hillary Clinton-style “basket of deplorables” gaffe. He hasn’t used the construction since and insists that only extreme MAGA voters, not all Republicans, are bad.
But everyone now knows what he really thinks. The same may be true of Taiwan, although Sullivan insisted at the White House that what Biden said doesn’t count.
“When the President of the United States wants to announce a policy change, he will do so. He has not done so,” the national security adviser said.
But after so many unequivocal statements and walk backs, how will anybody know for sure if he does?