WASHINGTON (AP) – There is no such thing as a purely personal opinion from the Oval Office about policies that matter. Armchair quarterbacking when you are president is filled when you are the one who has the ball.
Armies can move on your words; markets can cramp; diplomacy can thread out.
That has not stopped President Joe Biden from taking a visceral emphasis on the Ukraine war – describes Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a war criminalwho appear to be in favor of a coup in Moscow, and label Russian acts of war as genocide – and then say that it’s all his personal, not presidential, opinion.
It sows confusion in dangerous times.
America is not just a spectator in this conflict. The United States is Ukraine’s main supplier of weapons from the West, a key source of military intelligence for Kiev and a driving force behind global sanctions against Russia. It has generations of experience in how to talk to and about its historical nuclear competitor.
But on the consequent subjects of superpower, “Biden speaks these days from his heart,” his aides have said repeatedly. Not unlike his predecessor, he sometimes reacts to what he sees on TV. He should not always be taken literally, it is argued.
A declaration of genocide is the harshest sentence in history against a country that can bind the signatories of a UN treaty to intervene. Concerns about this commitment prevented the United States from recognizing the Rwandan Hutu killings of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in 1994 as genocide. It took more than a century for a U.S. president, Biden, last year to recognize the Armenian genocide.
But in remarks in Iowa on Tuesday, Biden equated Russia’s massacre of Ukrainian civilians with genocide, holding on to that attitude on the way back to Washington: “Yes, I called it genocide,” he confirmed. Lawyers will determine whether Russia’s behavior met international standards, the president added, but “it certainly seems that way to me.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised Biden’s statements. “True words from a true leader,” he tweeted. “Calling things by their names is essential to stand up against evil.”
But as the war unfolds in Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron warned: “I’m not sure if the escalation of words serves our cause.”
“I’m cautious about terms today,” Macron said. ‘Genocide has a meaning. … It’s crazy what’s happening today. It is incredible brutality and a return to war in Europe. But at the same time, I am looking at the facts, and I will continue to do my utmost to be able to stop the war and restore peace. “
In the White House last month, Biden said of Putin, “I think he’s a war criminal,” in response to a shouted question as he walked out of an unrelated reception signing bills. He said the same thing again when he visited American troops in Poland.
The White House was quick to say that it did not necessarily signal American policy.
“He spoke from his heart and spoke from what he has seen on television, which are barbaric acts of a brutal dictator, through his invasion of a foreign land,” said Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
Psaki on Wednesday rejected the idea that anyone was confused about the idea that Biden’s personal comments do not reflect federal policy. She said Biden lined up and promised that “he would shoot from the shoulder is his phrase that he often uses and tell them it directly. And his comments yesterday, not once but twice, and whether war crimes are a accurate reflection of that. “
After meeting Ukrainian children torn from their families during the war, Biden also sent his staff to explain his apparent support for the Moscow regime change, saying of Putin: “For God’s sake, this man can not stay in power . “
Again, not American politics.
“I expressed the moral indignation I felt towards this man,” Biden said days later. “I did not formulate a policy change.”
It was Donald Trump who rejected the idea of a script presidency in every way he could, with his wealth of tweets leading. Some reflected politics. Some just mirrored what was in his head at the moment.
“We made a dramatic transition during the Trump presidency” by realizing that a president may not speak for the government or the country at times, but only for himself, “said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She credits Biden White House for being quick to set the record when it happens.
In Jamieson’s academic world of political rhetoric, some public figures like Barack Obama are considered self-monitoring – they hear what they are saying as they say it and catch themselves off when they go into operation. The bite, she says, is missing this filter.
“Obama was a high self-monitoring,” she said. “It’s not Biden. The distance between thought and expression of Biden is not very great.”
Along with many years of foreign policy credentials and a deep knowledge of how the government works, Biden has a history of loose lips and letting his emotions prevail.
It occasionally caused friction when he was Obama’s vice president, as when Biden approved same-sex marriage in a 2012 television interview before his boss was quite ready to do so. Biden “probably got a little out of his skis, but out of generosity in spirit,” Obama said at the time, adding that he would have “preferred to have done this in my own way, on my own terms.”
White House aides say Biden’s statements reflect that he has never been someone who has kept his mouth shut during his five decades in Washington, even when it gets him in trouble.
They see Biden’s statements, separate from his government’s policies, as reactions not only to the horrific scenes in Ukraine, but also to political pressure in the home to say and do more in response to Russia’s invasion.
To David Axelrod, a former adviser to the eternally cautious Obama, Biden’s remark illustrated that Putin “can not remain in power” the Washington saying that “everyone’s strength is their weakness.”
The strength of the bid is his empathy and authenticity, Axelrod said in his latest podcast, and it can also be a weakness when a president says the wrong thing in a time of crisis.
The risk of remarks outside the cuff is hardly new to Biden. In 2016, Axelrod foresaw a similar concern from Trump’s ability to make highly controversial comments.
“When you are president of the United States, you can not just shoot first and think about it later in relation to what you say,” he said then, “because people can actually start shooting based on what you say.”