The word gaffe has been doing heavy lifting lately among reporters who cover the White House. It’s been used to explain every communication misstep President Joe Biden has made, even those that significantly escalated tensions with a hostile nuclear power.
In the past few months alone, Biden has bumbled through several foreign-policy statements that sowed geopolitical confusion about the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Recall that back in January, before Russia invaded, Biden blurted out that a “minor incursion” by Russia would not prompt any significant response from the West. Post-invasion, Biden has suggested that NATO countries would respond “in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons; told U.S. troops stationed in Poland that they would soon be fighting with Ukrainian soldiers; and, in a speech in Poland in March, ended with an ad-libbed flourish aimed at Putin that many people assumed was a call for regime change: “For God’s sake, this man can’t remain in power.”
These statements all had to be walked back by members of Biden’s staff because none of them was consistent with official policy. The sense of confusion they caused lingers because of what it suggests about this administration: that Biden either lacks the discipline to communicate effectively about serious matters, or, worse, that he’s not in charge of crafting these messages at all. Either way, the result is a president who often appears addled or weak.
And yet, mainstream media outlets continue for the most part to treat Biden’s gaffes as discrete, exceptional moments, not as evidence of a pattern of bumbling behavior. And they go out of their way to do the work of explaining or downplaying each instance.
Thus, when an understandable international outcry arose about Biden’s call for regime change, CNN was quick to smooth things over for the administration. The network invited former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on to assure viewers that Biden’s call for Putin’s removal was not a serious mistake but merely a demonstration of his natural Irish empathy: “I happen to think that Joe Biden—you know, he’s Irish—really has a great deal of compassion when he sees that people are suffering.” (Even Panetta could not avoid adding that, as a general matter, presidents should seek to be clear in their messaging, so as not to sow confusion).
This is more than Biden himself could admit. At a press conference not long after the speech, he refused to acknowledge his mistake. Instead, he claimed defensively that he had just been expressing “moral outrage.” Biden elaborated: “Nobody believes I was talking about taking down Putin.… I was expressing my outrage that he shouldn’t remain in power just like you know that bad people shouldn’t continue to do bad things.” This quickly became the official line in media stories about the gaffe.
Those who did note the mistake did so with kid gloves. Writing in Slate, Fred Kaplan offered a gentle remonstrance, noting that Biden himself has acknowledged his gaffe-prone nature. “It probably wasn’t a big mistake,” Kaplan wrote, “But it was a mistake.”
The few reporters who have pushed back forcefully on Biden’s confusing statements—in other words, the ones who do their job—are often subjected to derision. When Fox News’ Peter Doocy asked Biden to explain what he meant when he declared that a Russian chemical-weapons attack would be met by the U.S. “with a response in kind,” Biden refused to answer the question, saying testily, “Why would I tell you?” (In January, Biden called Doocy a “stupid son of a bitch” when Doocy asked him about inflation.)
It goes without saying that if Trump had treated a reporter with such disdain, the hue and cry from “the profession” would have lasted days. With Biden, however, the media establishment rallied around the president. The next night, after calling Doocy’s question a “ridiculous question from a ridiculous man,” talk-show snarker Stephen Colbert said Doocy should be “slapped” for asking for a clarification.
Biden’s political garble has never been as harmless as the media suggest, or a mere occasional mistake, like the times he’s referred to his vice president as “President Harris.” Combined with his penchant for fabulism when talking about his past, Biden’s undisciplined speech belies the image of the straight shooter that he crafted for himself and sold to voters.
When Biden was vice president, his odd ramblings were frequent enough that they prompted a column in Slate called “Bidenisms” (which itself was inspired by an earlier column, “Bushisms,” that collected President George W. Bush’s sometimes odd turns of phrase). Biden produced plenty of material, such as his cringey attempt at humor during a National Teacher of the Year reception in 2010: “I’ve been sleeping with a teacher for a long time. But it’s always been the same teacher,” referring to his wife, Jill.
Other “gaffes” have been far more revealing. During his 2020 campaign for president, Biden called a voter at a town hall a “lying dog-faced pony soldier,” for example, and who could forget his pronouncement on The Breakfast Club radio show in May 2020 about race and voting in the upcoming presidential election: “I’ll tell you, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” (Biden didn’t really walk back those comments either; “I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” he said.)
It’s worth noting that Slate’s “Bidenisms” did not return when Joe Biden won the presidency, perhaps because the diplomatic and political blunders he has committed since his inauguration would exhaust even an eager Slate intern.
Or perhaps the media’s relationship with Biden has been protective rather than adversarial.
Until the recent spate of misstatements about Russia, the press acted as if Biden’s blunders were folksy installments of an entertaining show called The Corn Pop Chronicles rather than potentially politically destabilizing incidents.
And therein lies the problem. As Matt Purple notes in the Spectator, Biden’s constant missteps create “an odd dynamic: what America’s Commander-in-Chief says isn’t necessarily final—or even remotely coherent. It’s similar to the way things work in autocracies: the real intent must be deciphered.”
An adversarial press should not handle an indecipherable leader by acting as the president’s self-appointed amanuensis (he meant this not that); or therapist (he’s just speaking from the heart!); or lawyer (uncritically amplifying the president’s denials). People frequently in the public eye make mistakes, presidents included. But the press should not be in the business of making excuses for them or credulously accepting every walk-back by administration officials. The White House press corps might not yet have reached the limits of its patience for Biden’s “gaffes,” but if the president’s approval ratings are any guide, the public has.
Photo: Gage Skidmore
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