No matter how the White House tries to spin President Joe Biden’s sprawling press conference, their blatant next-day clean-up attempts tell the tale: there’s a reason they prefer to keep him in the basement.
Biden has been glib and quick to anger under even remotely hostile questioning for decades and it has not gotten better with age. These are tendencies that derailed his first presidential bid almost 35 years ago. They were on full display when he addressed reporters in a formal solo briefing for only the second time since he has been in office.
Of all the bizarre assertions Biden uttered from the podium, the most consequential might be his comment differentiating a “minor incursion” from a Russian invasion of Ukraine. As is the case with most gaffes, as the venerable liberal columnist Michael Kinsley memorably argued, it contains a considerable amount of truth: depending on what exactly Russian President Vladimir Putin does, it might be difficult to produce a unified response from allies in terms of a sanctions regime.
But saying so publicly does little to make this task easier and could lead Putin to question the president’s resolve, undermining the U.S. bargaining position. Russia could conceivably take this as a signal that the costs of some type of incursion into Ukraine are lower than what Biden has repeatedly threatened.
That’s why White House press secretary Jen Psaki decamped to Fox News to insist that “any movement of military troops across the border into Ukraine” would qualify as an invasion meriting “severe economic consequences” for Russia. She had issued a written statement the night before restating what she described as Biden’s “clear” position: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies.
Vice President Kamala Harris also took a break from watching her staffers head toward the exits in order to tidy up after her boss, whose job she’d like to claim at some point. “The president of the United States, Joe Biden has been very clear on the subject of Ukraine. Which is that if Russia takes aggressive action, there will be severe and swift consequences — that there will be a price to pay,” Harris said during an interview with CBS Mornings. “We have been very clear with Putin that if there is any aggressive action taken, Russia will meet a cost, a severe cost.”
Then there were Biden’s confusing remarks about the legitimacy of the midterm elections. After months of claiming that democracy was endangered by the faintest concern about ballot integrity, he appeared to suggest that only by passing the Democrats’ voting bills could we have confidence in this year’s results but might have been talking about what would have happened if his own election hadn’t been certified by Congress. He then seemed to contradict the main argument for the Democrats’ election overhauls by saying people would ignore the GOP’s state-level election laws and vote anyway.
“The point he was raising was both that in 2020, even amongst challenging circumstances, efforts to suppress the vote and the midst of a pandemic, there was record turnout, [among] Democrats and Republicans record turnout to go to the polls,” Psaki attempted to explain.
It becomes tiresome to point out that either comment would have elicited an apoplectic reaction under former President Trump, But it is indisputable that if Trump babbled briefing book content, appeared to equivocate on Russia or gave anything less than a fulsome endorsement of the midterm elections’ validity, two of the three major cable news networks would explode in outrage.
This ceases to be whataboutism and becomes an observation worth making when Biden is regularly praised for — and owe his election to — the fact he is not Trump. White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor tweeted that Biden “made news, pushed back on critics, called out lies, took responsibility for mistakes he believes he made, expressed surprise at GOP, talked foreign policy and didn’t lash out on reporters.” That is certainly one way to describe it.
The White House would undoubtedly have preferred to have had all the conversations afterward be about Biden’s stamina and his opening statement defending his first year in office. Joe Biden certainly channeled Elton John toward the end of his long press conference: I’m still standing. But he’s always been a sloppy speaker, loose with facts and quick to rebuff rather than engage critics, and that was the man the White House is still mopping up after the following day.
W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? You can follow home on Twitter: @Jimantle.