President Biden’s off-script comment on Saturday that Vladimir Putin “cannot stay in power” has continued to haunt him this week as he tried to make it clear that he didn’t mean exactly what he seemed to say.
Biden told reporters On Monday, he said he was not “phrasing a policy change” or “talking about bringing Putin down,” stressing that he was very keen to avoid a bigger war with Russia. He was alone, he said, expressing moral ‘outrage’.
Journalist Michael Kinsley once wrote that “a blunder is when a politician tells the truth – an obvious truth he is not allowed to tell.”
That’s largely what Biden has done (and often has done) throughout his career† The “truth” is that, like many, he is shocked by Putin’s behavior and the tragic loss of life in Ukraine, and strongly wished that Putin was not in power. But he is not “supposed” to say that because he has the role and responsibilities of the President of the United States.
One of those responsibilities is not to do anything that carelessly increases the risk of war. Russia has not responded with further escalation against the US, so the risk may not have materialized. But in part that may be because the Biden administration has successfully made it clear that his comments are in no way to be taken literally.
What did Biden say and what was the context?
The comment came during a speech Biden gave Saturday night in Warsaw, Poland, at the end of a days-long trip to Europe filled with diplomatic meetings, and hours after meeting Ukrainian refugees. You can watch the speech or read a transcript of it. After speaking from his prepared text for nearly half an hour, Biden concluded as follows: I have bolded the noteworthy line:
A dictator determined to rebuild an empire will never erase a people’s love for freedom. Brutality will never diminish their will to be free. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia – because free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.
We will have a different future – a better future rooted in democracy and principles, hope and light, decency and dignity, freedom and opportunity.
For God’s sake, this man can’t stay in power.
God bless you all. And may God defend our freedom. And may God protect our troops. Thanks for your patience. Thank you.
Administrative officials coming soon the word to the reporters that those nine bold words weren’t in Biden’s prepared text and that the president went off the script by pronouncing them.
What’s controversial about that?
Given the horrific loss of life and destruction caused by Putin’s favorite war in Ukraine, it certainly makes emotional sense for many around the world to yearn for his demise (and indeed, some cheered Biden’s comments).
But that statement from the President of the United States had some important implications — and risks.
The big one was that Putin would interpret this as an escalation and that tensions between the nuclear-armed US and nuclear-armed Russia would worsen, hurting attempts to negotiate a settlement in Ukraine and increasing the risks of war. . Biden has often said he doesn’t want a war between the US and Russia, and he… repeated that Mondaybut the question is whether Putin understands that.
Now, after the experience with Donald Trump, it is probably true that foreign leaders no longer assume that what comes out of the president’s mouth is the deliberate policy of the United States. During this war, however, some have questioned whether Putin is acting irrationally or has cut himself off from good information. Historically, wars born of miscalculations and paranoia about the intentions of “the other side” are not uncommon. Hopefully Putin has not gone so far as to take such a dark view of American intentions and act on that basis. But why did Biden take the risk in the first place? What’s the point of going off-script?
Moreover, if Biden had chosen to escalate against Putin for deliberate strategic reasons, it still might be unwise, but perhaps there would be a reason behind it and the costs and benefits of doing so would have been taken into account.
However, accidentally escalating with an ad-lib doesn’t seem like the best way to make US policy. (As, again, was often pretty obvious when Trump was in charge.)
What was the response?
The cleanup began just minutes after Biden’s speech when a White House official speaking in the background made this statement to reporters: “The president’s point was that Putin should not be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He wasn’t talking about Putin’s power in Russia, or about regime change.” So there was an immediate walkback and clarification that Biden was not announcing any policy.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskovy called Biden’s comments were “quite alarming” and a “personal insult”, adding: “It is not for the President of the United States to decide who will be the President of the Russian Federation and who.” Overall, Paul Shinkman of US News featured this as a “muted answer,” writing that some of the US’s western allies seemed more annoyed than Russia. So, most importantly, it appears the comments weren’t taken as an escalation for now as some feared (perhaps in part because the administration returned them so quickly).
A critical Western ally was French President Emmanuel Macron, who responded to Biden’s comments on Sunday† “We want to end the war that Russia has started in Ukraine without waging war and without escalating,” Macron said. “If we want to do this, we must not be in the escalation of words or deeds.”
More extensive cleaning from Biden personally followed when the president spoke to reporters at the budget event Monday. He said:
I expressed the moral outrage I felt at the way Putin is acting, and this man’s actions – just – just the brutality of it. Half of the children in Ukraine. I just came from being with those families…
…I want to make it clear: I was not then, and am not now, articulating a policy change. I expressed the moral outrage I feel, and I make no apologies for it.
The president further clarified that these were his “personal feelings” and not his policies, adding:
He cannot remain in power. Just like, you know, bad people shouldn’t keep doing bad things. But it does not mean that we have a fundamental policy of doing anything to bring Putin down in any way.
… No one believes I was talking about taking down Putin. …What have I been talking about since this all started? The only war that is worse than intended is one that is not intended. The last thing I want to do is start a land war or a nuclear war with Russia. That’s not part of it.
I expressed my outrage at this man’s behavior. It’s outrageous. It’s outrageous. And it’s more of an aspiration than anything. He shouldn’t be in power. Such people should not be governing countries, but they do. Just because they do doesn’t mean I can’t express my indignation about it.
So Biden has made it clear that he is shocked by Putin’s behavior and that he has a personal “aspiration” that “bad” people like Putin should ideally not be in charge of countries, but he acknowledges that this is the reality.
Overall, however, Russia has not responded with further escalation against the US and the New York Times reported on Tuesday that there are “signs of progress” in the talks between Russia and Ukraine. So it looks like the cleanup was successful. Perhaps it would have been better not to need a cleaning at all, but the worst fears this would lead to have not yet been realized.