In his remarks to the American people Thursday night about events in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden invoked the memory of his son, Beau, who died of cancer in 2015. He made note of Beau’s military service and tried to draw a connection from his own feelings of grief over his son’s death to the experience of the families of the 13 U.S. Marines who were killed in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport.
Whatever Biden’s personal feelings, as political performance, his statements were both weak and unequal to the moment. To equate someone’s death from cancer to the slaughter of soldiers by terrorists is already poor judgment. Biden was supposed to be speaking as president and commander-in-chief to a nation reeling from a deadly terror attack on American soldiers in Afghanistan, not as the nation’s erstwhile therapist. The president’s late arrival to his own press conference already demonstrated a lack of respect for the soldiers’ families (U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke about the deaths of American soldiers before Biden could be bothered to shuffle out to the podium) and his overall mien—distracted, tired, harassed—projected weakness, not resolve.
Perhaps the delay was necessary to hone Biden’s messaging strategy, which evidently is to double down on portraying Biden as empathizer-in-chief. But fewer and fewer Americans are buying what the administration is selling these days, and with good reason: Biden is using empathy instrumentally as a dodge for taking responsibility. Just one day earlier, he thought it appropriate to joke to a reporter who asked him about the many Americans left behind in Afghanistan that if he was one of them, “You’ll be the first person I call,” before leaving without answering any press questions.
Despite early, fawning tributes to Biden’s supposed empathy by people eager to score jobs in his administration, Biden’s claim to it has always been more about convenience than conviction. Despite the enthusiasm of those who saw in Biden’s demeanor a stark and welcome contrast to that of former President Donald Trump, Biden’s claim to personal warmth with those he knows should never have been mistaken for genuine empathy as a leader. In practice, Biden’s much-vaunted empathy has proven to be more about political posturing than character, the logical conclusion of Barack Obama’s coopting of empathy as a political buzzword during his own presidency. (Remember Obama saying, “The biggest deficit we have in our society and in our world is an empathy deficit?”)
It is also a pitch-perfect example of what philosopher Paul Bloom described in Against Empathy: the tendency to see empathy as the “magic bullet of morality” when it is far more complicated and double-edged. “Empathy-based concerns clash with other sorts of moral concerns,” Bloom noted, something Biden’s performance during the last few weeks clearly demonstrates.
Even the usually sympathetic New York Times, which reminded Americans that Biden ran on “competence and empathy,” is finding it difficult to locate in the president’s actions now: “At points, the president has evinced little sense of the human toll as the Taliban swept back to power. Asked about pictures of fleeing Afghans packed into planes and some even falling to their death after trying to sneak aboard, Mr. Biden interrupted. ‘That was four days ago, five days ago,’ he said, when in fact it was two days earlier and hardly made less horrific by the passage of a couple of sunsets.”
What Americans want to see from their president during a time of crisis isn’t just resolve and clear communication, particularly when American service members sacrifice their lives for our country. We want to see our president honor their sacrifice, not use it as an example of why their clearly disastrous policy-making was the only way forward.
The man responsible for our dishonorable withdrawal from Afghanistan has no right to tell the American people what we should be feeling right now or to defend himself by pointing to the equally dishonorable policies of his predecessor. His empathy has proven to be little more than hollow words. He’s demonstrated no humility about the errors in judgment he’s clearly made, errors that have cost Americans and countless Afghans their lives.
Biden might still be counting on Americans to lose interest in Afghanistan. He shouldn’t. It’s bad enough that the Biden administration condescendingly assumes that Americans cannot recognize a foreign policy disaster when they see one. But to insist that Americans, our allies, and the media overlook this disaster because Joe Biden has feelings just like us? That’s not incompetent messaging. It’s incompetence.