Speaking Monday in Tokyo, President Biden sent his aides scrambling when, deviating from decades of carefully crafted policy, he declared that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked it.
Which was reminiscent of the moment two months before that, in January, when Biden seemed to imply that the United States might tolerate “a minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine — an assertion both Biden and his aides clambered to clarify.
“I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin,” Biden said the following day, responding to the public outcry. “He has no misunderstanding. If any — any — assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.”
Biden is a self-described “gaffe machine” who once, in 1987, found the need to explain to reporters, “I feel very capable of using my mouth in sync with my mind.” But as president, his rinse-and-repeat cycle of veering off-script — followed by his team’s now well-honed cleanup efforts — has at times complicated U.S. policy goals and even undermined Biden himself.
“There are times when presidents being human misspeak and the staff being responsible has to clarify, but I think in this, and other recent cases, Biden is just speaking plainly what we all understood to be the case anyway,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who served as an assistant secretary in the State Department during the Obama administration. “In such cases, it’s generally best to let the president’s words stand rather than walking things back in ways that raise further questions.”
Or as Tommy Hicks Jr., a co-chair of the Republican National Committee, put it less charitably in a tweet Monday: “Another clean-up job from the Biden spin room. He cannot go overseas without saying something that his team has to walk back minutes later. It’s reckless and embarrassing.”
Monday was hardly the first time Biden has gotten ahead of the United States’ official policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan — a feat not entirely surprising for a man whose critics claim is not strategic and whose allies even say is rarely ambiguous.
Asked during a CNN town hall in October if the United States would protect Taiwan if China attacked it, Biden replied, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that” — a claim his aides hastened to say did not reflect a change to long-held policy.
Bonnie Glaser, the director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said she has counted five times the president has spoken about Taiwan, and each time she says he has misstated America’s foreign policy.
“The issue here is President Biden has usually added statements that mischaracterize U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” Glaser said. “He has said several times we have a commitment to defend Taiwan. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, we do not have such a commitment. We do not have an obligation to defend Taiwan.”
Glaser added that Biden’s comments may in fact “undermine U.S. interests” by provoking China and leading to an escalation of tensions.
In an ironic twist, when then-President George W. Bush made almost identical comments about Taiwan in 2001, it was Sen. Joe Biden — then the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee — who excoriated him in a Washington Post op-ed titled “Not So Deft On Taiwan.”
“Words matter,” Biden chided Bush.
Many of Biden’s own recent ad-libs have involved foreign policy. In March, he called Putin a “war criminal” — a term his administration had studiously avoided while determining whether such a designation officially applied. At the time, then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was simply “speaking from his heart.”
With his nine-word ad-lib at the end of his Warsaw speech — “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” he said, referring to Putin — he upended a rousing, 30-minute paean to democracy, leaving his team racing to clarify that Biden had not, in fact, meant what he had just said while the presidential motorcade idled outside of Warsaw’s Royal Castle.
“The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official said in a statement at the time. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Two days later, back in Washington, Biden seemed to walk back the walk-back, saying, “I’m not walking anything back.”
Yet in the same breath, he also contended: “But I want to make it clear: I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it.”
Biden made his Taiwan comment during a trip to South Korea and Japan this week, where a key focus was supposed to be a new economic framework intended to counter China’s growing influence in Asia.
Instead, Biden’s unplanned Taiwan comment in response to a reporter’s question overshadowed the announcement, a senior administration official said, likening it to the time Biden’s comment in Poland overtook the broader message of his speech on Ukraine.
With the Warsaw ad-lib, Biden’s advisers had briefly considered letting his comments stand with no clarification as they debated their options — a strategy some both inside and outside the administration say would have been preferable.
“When he made that statement at the end of the Warsaw speech, there was no reason for his staff to walk it back,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk consultancy. “It made them look overly cautious and like they were not on the same page. It made him look weak and like he didn’t know what he was talking about, and he did know what he was talking about.”
An administration official argued that in most instances, the after-action explanations by Biden and his team are more clarifications than “walk-backs.” The president will also sometimes flag that he would like to add to his remarks, either doing so himself or directing his team to do so, often after a conversation with the relevant policy and communications advisers, the official added.
Biden is hardly the first president to walk back or clarify remarks. President Barack Obama — under whom Biden served as No. 2 — walked back topics from the seemingly trivial (that opponents of his agenda were “crazies” impeding progress) to the more consequential (that his administration did not “have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State terrorist group).
Former president Donald Trump and his team, meanwhile, rarely walked back anything — no matter how false or misleading his statements. In his four years in office, Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims, according to the Washington Post Fact Checker. And he still continues to falsely claim that the 2020 election, which he lost, was somehow rigged or stolen.
The White House defended Biden’s history of clarifications.
“The president speaks directly and candidly — straight from the shoulder, as he often says,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “Doing so has been critical to his success in everything from rallying the world to support Ukraine to passing the most significant infrastructure law in generations. And when he feels the need to add context to something he said, as every president has, he doesn’t hesitate to do so.”
Biden’s off-the-cuff comments pepper his White House tenure like so much confetti — not an everyday occurrence, but eye-catching and diverting when they come.
In January 2021, Biden said his administration was aiming for 150 million coronavirus vaccine shots in arms in his first 100 days in office — up from a previously announced goal of 100 million. Psaki then said Biden was not setting a new goal with the increased number, but just expressing a hope.
In June of that year, Biden initially announced he would sign a bipartisan infrastructure deal only if it moved “in tandem” with a Democrats-only bill of social spending programs that was far more liberal. His statement prompted an almost instantaneous outcry from Republicans, and Biden promptly issued a statement walking back his comments.
Noting that his remarks had “understandably upset some Republicans,” Biden wrote, “My comments also created the impression that I was issuing a veto threat on the very plan I had just agreed to, which was certainly not my intent.”
And the next month, in July, Biden said Facebook and other social media firms were “killing people” by allowed coronavirus vaccine misinformation to spread — later clarifying that he meant that bad actors were using the platforms to spreading dangerous misinformation.
In a podcast interview with David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser, last May, Psaki confessed that Biden’s team often advises him not to take impromptu questions from reporters but that the president often defies their pleas.
“That is not something we recommend,” Psaki said. “In fact, a lot of times we say, ‘Don’t take questions.'”
But, she added, “He’s going to do what he wants to do because he’s the president.”
Indeed, Biden is known for frequently delivering a scripted speech from the teleprompter, turning to leave, and then turning back to field reporters’ shouted questions.
On Tuesday in Tokyo, Biden again briefly answered questions from the media, shortly before boarding Air Force One to return to the United States.
“No,” Biden replied when asked whether the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan is dead.
Asked whether he could explain, Biden again simply offered “No” — leaving no room for another misstep but more than a little strategic ambiguity of his own.