Ad-Libs in a Time of War
Terry H. Schwadron
March 28, 2022
Joe Biden’s prepared remarks this weekend were already hot, calling out Russia’s Vladimir Putin in no uncertain terms, capping his visits with allied leaders and pitching the war in Europe as existential for democracy.
The addition of his ad-libbed words, however, has caused a ruckus. Biden has created an unwanted distraction to his otherwise forceful remarks by adding on off-the-cuff, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden said.
We know it was ad-libbed because his own White House folks immediately tried to back off from the implication that Biden was calling for Russians to remove Putin from office, rather than from his war-forward thinking. Senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have insisted regime change is not on the table.
The brink of war simply is the wrong time for an ad-lib. Lives are at stake.
In doing so, Biden managed at once to provoke Putin and to arm his domestic opponents with ammunition to repeat criticism that Biden is too old and in less-than-full command of connecting his tongue and brain. Biden substituted emotion for the considered thinking that is supposed to come with his office, the kind of thing that his predecessor might have done.
So, we’re left wondering: Did Biden mean it or not? Would support for “regime change,” as
Washington calls it, maybe the best of various bad policy options? Is it even possible for a U.S. President to call for removal of Russia’s elected leader? Is Biden less than capable of controlling his own remarks or did we inadvertently hear how he really feels?
The pundits are having a field day.
The Problem There
Among the most important lessons I got as a manager over my career was to ensure that there never was a surprise to my superiors or to my staff. You can have whatever opinions you want, you can be as foresighted as you think necessary, so long as you have ensured that those around you never feel as if they have been undercut by whatever you’re now saying publicly.
In this case, the White House advisers, the national security and diplomatic folks were all surprised. So were allies. So, apparently, was Putin.
And so, now, world leaders are having to figure out how to adjust — again — in a time of serious uncertainty about the war and a ton of other issues for which Biden’s leadership is essential. A few, including France’s Emmanuel Macron, felt compelled to speak out against inflammatory language just at the moment that the situation is already in flames.
Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Politico,
“The fact that it was so off-script in some ways makes it worse,” because it could be read as Biden’s genuine belief as opposed to his scripted words.
The primary problem here is that when we are unsure whether the President of the United States wants the Russian leader removed, that might further enrage an already desperate Putin and further cut off the possibilities of finding a way out of this invasion maze. Would the U.S. foment a revolution in Russia, send in the assassins that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) keeps yapping about, or expect that some newly encouraged underlings seek to organize a coup?
Would a personal attack on Putin somehow be different from what we’re already seeing, and what Biden’s more complete remarks were calling for anyway?
The point is, we’re guessing at a time when verifiable information is at a premium. It’s not the best time for off-hand remarks. We don’t want to go to war by accident.
The Problem at Home
But the other problem, back home, is that “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.”
That leads to a political problem, building on a perception that Biden is not quite up to the job.
By curiosity, the over-the-top call for action may truly appeal as a message to some Republicans and probably appalls those who speak out in defense of Putin’s actions.
We’re quick in this country to jump on single remarks, whether delivered as planned sound bites or as inadvertent remarks on an open mike, as if they are fully baked policy and as if they represent the completed portrait of the speaker.
We don’t want to learn our lesson, repeated over and over that the words and actions of a candidate or officeholder must be looked at in more complete context to have any value.
It’s what was wrong about Senate Republicans hectoring Judge Katangi Brown Jackson as a Supreme Court nominee; they were out for a gaffe, not a substantial look at her overall qualifications. It is the worst of media coverage of Donald Trump, as well, who managed to just blurt out that bleach treatments might work for covid, or for the way Vice President Kamala Harris has more than once covered a hesitated answer with a stage laugh at her own situation.
It’s what feels wrong at the incessant media horde gatherings which the candidate or official is using as a photo op and the reporters who shout questions are hoping for a sound bite that is even better if it’s a gaffe.
The important takeaway is that Biden used his thought-through remarks — and the ad-lib — to tell Putin that the United States is standing up to him. That is risky enough without need to harp on whether there was a mistaken phrasing.