March 29, 2022
During his presidential campaign, President Biden often reminded his audience about the heavy weight that the words of a president can carry. “The words of a president matter,” he said more than once. “They can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace.”
With nine ad-libbed words at the end of a 27-minute speech, Biden created an unwanted distraction to his otherwise forceful remarks by calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be pushed out of office.
It was a remarkable statement that would reverse stated U.S. policy–directly countering claims from senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who have insisted regime change is not on the table.
It went further than even U.S. presidents during the Cold War, and immediately reverberated around the world as world leaders, diplomats, and foreign policy experts sought to determine what Biden said, what it meant—and, if he didn’t mean it, why he said it.
Shortly after the speech, a White House official sought to clarify the comments.
“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia or regime change,” the official said.
Biden’s line was not planned and came as a surprise to U.S. officials, according to a person familiar with the speech who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive situation. In the immediate aftermath of the remark, reporters rushed to find Biden aides and seek clarity on the president seemingly supporting a regime change in Russia.
But Biden aides demurred, refusing to comment as they scrambled to craft a response.
White House officials were adamant the remark was not a sign of a policy change, but they did concede it was just the latest example of Biden’s penchant for stumbling off message. And like many of his unintended comments, they came at the end of his speech as he ad-libbed and veered from the carefully crafted text on the teleprompter.
“The speech was quite remarkable,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran diplomat and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is one of those speeches where the one-liner in many ways drowns out the intent of the speech. Because that’s exactly what people are focusing on.”
Miller said that had the White House not immediately clarified, the comment would have led to a significant shift in policy and signaled to Putin that the United States would attempt to drive him out of office. It is unclear what the full impact of the comment may be in coming days.
“I’m risk averse by nature, especially with a guy who has nuclear weapons,” he said. “But will it have operational consequences? I don’t know.”
It likely signals to Putin what he already suspected about Biden’s true feelings, and it almost certainly will be used as part of Russia’s propaganda.
But the comment also seemed to provide a window into Biden’s current thinking, and some of the mind-set that the Administration has with regard to Putin.
“What it tells me, and worries me, is that the top team is not thinking about plausible war termination,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint.
“If they were, Biden’s head wouldn’t be in a place where he’s saying, ‘Putin must go.’ The only way to get to war termination is to negotiate with this guy,” O’Hanlon said.
“When you say this guy must go you’ve essentially declared you’re not going to do business with him,” he added. “However appealing at an emotional level, it’s not going to happen. We can’t control it, and it probably won’t take place anytime soon.”
Over the past few weeks, Biden’s rhetoric on Putin—a man he once recounted telling to his face, “I don’t think you have a soul”—has become increasingly pointed. He has called him a “butcher,” “pure thug,” and a “murderous dictator.” So saying that he should be removed from power could viewed as the logical next step.
It also is in line with Biden at times articulating policy before his aides are ready. Last week, he called Putin a “war criminal,” which White House aides quickly said was simply him “speaking from the heart.” But within a few days, U.S. policy changed as Blinken also called Putin a war criminal and released a formal assessment on war crimes committed by Russia.
Biden’s comment was particularly striking because his Administration has taken pains to avoid even implying that regime change is a goal of the Western response to Russia’s aggression.
Kremlin spokesman Demitry Peskov told state news agencies, “That’s not for Biden to decide. The president of Russia is elected by Russians.”
Research contact: @washingtonpost