He and the presidency are declining

“End of the quote. Repeat the line.” Such is the senescence of the 46th president of the United States that when he is not flat-out misspeaking, it is because he is reading the cues as he stumbles through the see-Jane-run prose of White House speechwriters. Like life at 79, the teleprompts come at you fast.

We must bear this in mind when assessing how consequential it may be when the putative leader of the free world misspeaks. We gasp, yes, but it is probably not as damaging as one might fear. 

Alas, that realization induces as much pang of regret as sigh of relief. The bully pulpit is among the American presidency’s greatest assets when exploited with competent confidence. There was a time, not so long ago, when a president of such gravity called for the Berlin Wall to be razed, and it actually did come down in due course, along with the evil empire whose crumbling he’d had the vision to see coming. 

Nowadays, though, presidential rhetoric is as apt to trigger eye-rolling as execution of a coherent plan. 

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters as he arrives at the White House in Washington, Saturday, July 16, 2022, after returning from a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Biden recently read his cue card directions instead of his speech.
AP/Andrew Harnik

White House down

As with nearly everything befalling his train wreck of a term (which has “just” 30 months to go!), Joe Biden is guilty more of accelerating a corrosive trend than of causing it. He entered office notorious for his gift of the gaffe, a thin-skinned lemming so dull that when one of his presidential bids was torpedoed by a plagiarism scandal, it turned out he had chosen another mediocrity — former British Labour leader Neil Kinnock — to steal from. 

Through a half-century of rhetorical misadventure, Biden has never been taken seriously — including by President Barack Obama, who, confoundingly, plucked Biden from the scrap heap to be his running mate after serving with him in the Senate . . . and famously slipped an aide a “Shoot. Me. Now.” note he’d scribbled during one of Biden’s logorrheic discourses. (Obama discouraged Biden’s yen to succeed him in 2016 and did not back the 2020 presidential bid until Biden had the nomination sewn up, even then cautioning Democrats, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f- -k things up.”)

It is not just Biden but the presidency itself whose power to persuade, and just as important to instill fear in rogue regimes, has suffered diminution. Trump supporters concede that their man is not to be taken “literally,” an epithet etched in stone even before two fraudulent months of post-election “stop the steal” claptrap triggered a riot at the Capitol — and it should not be ignored that Trump’s apparently imminent third bid for the presidency is premised not merely on maintaining the fiction but on making adherence to it a litmus test of loyalty.

Vice President Joe Biden, left, listens as President Barack Obama announces that Biden will lead an administration-wide effort to curb gun violence in response to the Connecticut school shooting, during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House on Dec. 19, 2012 in Washington.
Former President Barack Obama once slipped an aide a “Shoot. Me. Now.” note while Biden was droning through a speech.
AP/Evan Vucci

Still, the former president’s apologists maintain that foreign powers had to take him “seriously,” despite the innate mendacity and numbing effects of his unhinged Twitter tirades. There is something to this. Candidate Trump might have ripped Obama on social media for dispatching American troops to Syria without congressional authorization, but that hardly meant President Trump would not bomb Syria without congressional authorization as a warning to Assad and Russia that his “red lines” against the use of chemical and biological weapons, unlike Obama’s, were not just vapid news copy.

Joe vs. Donald

This contrast, more than his incoherence, explains Biden’s problem. Enemy regimes proceeded cautiously with Trump not only because his instability and tendency to dissemble made him unpredictable, but because he was just aggressive enough, and just dismissive enough of the progressive international order, that the rogues figured he (and the hawks around him) might just take out an Iranian terror master, such as Gen. Qasem Soleimani. 

Trump’s words might not have carried much weight, but his populist preference for lightning displays of might over long-term entanglements did.

Biden, by contrast, is a captive of transnational progressivism, where red lines are just preliminaries to new red lines, and talking (and talking, and talking) is an end in and of itself. The international media are in thrall to the urbanity and nuance of these “citizens of the world,” but the hard men can’t help but notice that when they take Crimea, nothing of real consequence follows the preening recriminations unless you count the West’s lining up to buy more Russian oil and gas while strangling its own energy producers.

 Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Road to Majority conference June 17, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn.
Former President Donald Trump was an aggressive and unpredictable speaker.
AP/Mark Humphrey

Loose lips

This default position against acting in America’s vital interests, this insistence on being perceived as a team player on a dysfunctional team, rather than as the essential nation willing and able to lead, is what makes Biden’s verbal missteps and the paralysis they signal such a vulnerability. 

During a press conference, with Russian divisions encircling Ukraine, Biden — making like a pundit instead of a president — jaw-droppingly observed that Moscow would face limited risk if it proceeded with a “minor incursion,” since the United States and its allies would inevitably “end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.” 

Did the president’s insouciant display of fecklessness provoke Vladimir Putin’s invasion? Unlikely. Biden, with eyes to see and access to the best intelligence, had also cavalierly noted that Russia “probably” would attack, and that’s because Putin was patently poised to do so after very costly preparations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Council for Strategic Development and National Projects via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 18, 2022.
Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal on more than one occasion.
Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Yet the Kremlin still had to decide whether to go big or go small. After Biden’s gaffe, Putin went big: trying to swallow Ukraine whole rather than merely securing the grip he already held on the eastern border territories. Putin, it is fair to surmise, calculated that if Biden would not even play the game of feigning opposition to any incursion and warning vaguely about retribution, he could afford to indulge his grand ambitions.

Putin may have been more swayed, months earlier, by Biden’s shameful surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban. The president withdrew a modest commitment of forces in a manner that obviously endangered Americans, rendered the US-backed government in Kabul unsustainable, and ensured that the Taliban and its allied jihadists would overrun the country. Yet in July, with the collapse imminent and obvious, Biden took to a podium and laughably insisted that Kabul would hold and a Taliban takeover was “unlikely.” This was followed by an embarrassing administration campaign to portray the new Taliban regime as reformed and pragmatic, even as it executed Afghans suspected of collaborating with Americans and reimposed suffocating sharia strictures.

Empty words

In themselves, Biden’s words are meaningless. Of that, there is no better testament than the soles of his advisers’ shoes, worn away by the speed and regularity with which those words are walked back. 

Well, yes, the president did say Putin is a “war criminal,” but we are not seeking to prosecute him as if he were, you know, an actual war criminal. Well, yes, the president did say Putin “cannot remain in power,” but, no, we are not seeking regime change and wouldn’t think of meddling in Moscow’s internal affairs. Well, yes, the president did say he would abide by the “Taiwan agreement” with China’s president, Xi Jinping, but, no, there is actually no such thing as a “Taiwan agreement” — there is just the same old “one China” policy under which we ambiguously acknowledge that China claims Taiwan as its own but we do not recognize its claim. And OK, yes, the president did say he was committing the US to defending Taiwan militarily, but, no, that does not actually mean we’re committing to, um, defending Taiwan militarily — our policy of strategic ambiguity has not been altered by the president’s habit of strategic vacuity.

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters after meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Waldorf Astoria Jeddah Qasr Al Sharq hotel, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Biden once noted that Putin would “probably” attack Ukraine.
AP/Evan Vucci

Mixed messages

Of course a government’s failure to speak clearly and credibly in defense of its interests can do harm. The mutual misconstruals by the Japanese and American governments of their counterparts’ words and intentions in the weeks before Tokyo’s attack on Pearl Harbor are legendary. 

Did the British “invite” Hitler to invade Poland by expressly guaranteeing only its “sovereignty” rather than its “territorial integrity”? Did the Truman administration “greenlight” North Korea’s invasion of the South when Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s Press Club speech omitted Korea from its description of Truman’s “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific? It is easy to overstate the effects of seeming rhetorical missteps. History and its revelation of previously secret intelligence files generally show a multitude of factors and interests in play when regimes make momentous decisions.

It should matter when an American president speaks. But more than in words, credibility lies in a president’s demonstrated commitment — by behavior, by policy — to America’s vital interests. Even if there’s no hope for Biden, that means the bully pulpit can recover . . . with the right president.

From National Review.

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