The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s ‘minor incursion’ remark was more than just a gaffe. It revealed a weak president.

President Biden answers questions during a news conference at the White House on Jan. 19. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Biden’s news conference on Wednesday was a microcosm of the reasons his presidency is on life support. Nothing better demonstrates that than his statement that the United States might tolerate a Russian “minor incursion” into Ukraine.

Official U.S. policy has been clear from the outset of the mounting geopolitical crisis. If Russia invades Ukraine, as its troop buildup near the border suggests it might, the United States and its NATO allies would impose massive economic sanctions. Reiterating that policy should have been a chip shot for the president. Instead, he issued a blunder heard round the world.

It doesn’t matter that White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a clarifying statement only moments after Biden left the stage that the United States would view any movement of Russian forces into Ukraine as an invasion. Or that Biden the next day emphasized that Russia would pay a “heavy price.” Ukrainian officials still seemed flabbergasted by the remark, and allies who were already leery of following Biden’s lead are likely nervous about where he might be taking them.

Biden has now sown uncertainty where there was clarity, all because he was unable to provide a nuanced point that Russia’s current efforts to destabilize Ukraine do not cross the line that would produce the allegedly crippling sanctions. Ukrainians and our allies must wonder what he will say if he ever speaks off the cuff with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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That inability is a clear example of why so many Americans think he is not up to the job. Biden’s unforced error, followed by a rambling word salad that left listeners more confused than when he started, provides more than enough grist for the mill for those who say he’s not.

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Biden’s gaffe also follows an unnerving pattern of pander and bluster. Biden fancies himself a premier negotiator, but he is often extremely conciliatory, allowing others to advance their preferred positions without much push back. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) used this to dramatically scale back Biden’s initial tax-and-spending proposals to the consternation of party progressives. He’s too willing to give away more than he needs, and can’t even reach a deal when he does.

Once his conciliation fails, however, he often resorts to extreme harshness bordering on demagoguery. Consider his partisan and reckless speech on voting rights, in which he demonized those who do not support his proposed reforms as the rhetorical descendants of repugnant racists such as Jefferson Davis. Listeners don’t quake in their boots in fear when he speaks like this; they roll their eyes. Such bluster doesn’t get him any closer to his goal. In fact, it underscores his weakness.

Which brings us back to the threat of Russia invading Ukraine. Why would Putin believe Biden in the face of his enduring ineptitude? Putin knows many European allies are leery of the pain that serious sanctions would inflict on their economies. Many are dependent upon the importation of Russian natural gas to heat their homes and workspaces. Crushing sanctions would halt these imports, and thus hurt Russia, but they would also cripple nations that rely on them. If Biden can’t even get two wayward Democratic senators on board with their party’s priorities, why would Putin think he can get sovereign countries to engage in economic self-harm? The sheer incongruity of what Biden threatens makes the threat weaker, and thus weakens him as well.

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Indeed, Putin already has experience with the United States backing away from a seemingly clear red line. President Barack Obama did that in Syria in 2013 when he failed to strike Syrian forces after they used chemical weapons even though he said he would. That bluff was all that Putin needed; if Obama wouldn’t oppose chemical weapons strikes, he had no stomach for intervening in the Syrian civil war at all. By the end of 2015, Russian troops were on the ground there in support of the Syrian regime, saving the country’s dictator from defeat and bolstering Russia’s role in Middle East politics.

Biden’s gaffe is consistent with what we’ve seen so far. He is a weak president who is neither feared nor loved. For the United States, that will likely mean a devastating defeat for Democrats in this year’s midterms. For Ukraine and other U.S. allies, it could mean much worse.