WASHINGTON – There’s no such thing as a purely personal opinion from the Oval Office on policies that matter. Armchair quarterbacking when you're the president is fraught when you're the one with the ball.
Armies can move on your words; markets can convulse; diplomacy can unravel.
That has not stopped President Joe Biden from viscerally weighing in on the Ukraine war — labeling Russia's Vladimir Putin a war criminal, appearing to advocate an overthrow in Moscow, branding Russian war actions as genocide — then saying it's all his personal, not presidential, opinion.
It's sowing confusion in dangerous times.
America is no mere bystander in this conflict. The U.S. is Ukraine's chief supplier of arms from the West, a key source of military intelligence for Kyiv and a driving force behind global sanctions against Russia. It has generations of experience in how to talk to and about its historic nuclear rival.
But on consequential superpower subjects, Biden these days is “speaking from his heart,” his aides have said repeatedly. Not unlike his predecessor, he is reacting at times to what he sees on TV. He's not always to be taken literally, it is argued.
A declaration of genocide is history's harshest judgment against a country, one that can bind the signers of a United Nations treaty to intervene. Concern about that obligation dissuaded the U.S. from recognizing the Rwandan Hutus’ killing of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in 1994 as genocide. It took more than a century for a U.S. president, Biden last year, to recognize the Armenian genocide.
But in remarks in Iowa on Tuesday, Biden equated Russia's mass killings of Ukrainian civilians to genocide and stuck with that position on his way back to Washington: “Yes, I called it genocide,” he affirmed. Lawyers will decide if Russia’s conduct met the international standard, the president added, but “it sure seems that way to me.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised Biden’s remarks. "True words of a true leader,” he tweeted. “Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil."
But as the war unfolds in Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron warned, "I’m not sure if the escalation of words serves our cause.”
“I am prudent with terms today,” Macron said. “Genocide has a meaning. ... It’s madness what’s happening today. It’s unbelievable brutality and a return to war in Europe. But at the same time I look at the facts, and I want to continue to try the utmost to be able to stop the war and restore peace.”
At the White House last month, Biden said of Putin, “I think he is a war criminal,” in response to a shouted question as he walked out of an unrelated bill-signing reception. He said the same again when visiting U.S. troops in Poland.
The White House hastened to say that did not necessarily signal U.S. policy.
“He was speaking from his heart and speaking from what he’s seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator, through his invasion of a foreign country,” said press secretary Jen Psaki.
Psaki on Wednesday dismissed the notion that anyone was confused by the idea of Biden’s personal comments not reflecting federal policy. She said Biden ran for office promising "he would shoot from the shoulder, is his phrase that he often uses, and tell it to them straight. And his comments yesterday, not once but twice, and on war crimes are an exact reflection of that.”
As well, after meeting Ukrainian children torn from their families in the war, Biden sent his staff scrambling to explain his apparent endorsement of Moscow regime change when he said of Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power."
Again, not U.S. policy.
“I was expressing the moral outrage that I felt toward this man," Biden said days later. "I wasn’t articulating a policy change.”
It was Donald Trump who jettisoned the idea of a scripted presidency every way he could, with his multitude of tweets leading the way. Some reflected policy. Some just mirrored what was in his head at the moment.
“We made a dramatic transition during the Trump presidency” in coming to realize that a president may not be speaking for the government or the country at times, but only for himself, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She credits the Biden White House with being quick to set the record straight when that happens.
In Jamieson’s academic world of political rhetoric, some public figures like Barack Obama are considered self-monitors — they hear what they are saying as they say it and catch themselves in progress when they go adrift. Biden, she says, lacks this filter.
“Obama was a high self monitor,” she said. “Biden is not. The distance between thought and expression for Biden is not very wide.”
Along with longtime foreign-policy credentials and a deep knowledge of how government works, Biden has a history of loose lips and letting his emoting get the better of him.
That caused occasional friction when he was Obama’s vice president, as when Biden endorsed same-sex marriage rights in a 2012 TV interview before his boss was quite ready to do so. Biden “probably got out a little bit over his skis, but out of generosity of spirit,” Obama said at the time, adding that he would have “preferred to have done this in my own way, on my own terms.”
White House aides say Biden’s pronouncements reflect that he’s never been one to hold his tongue through his five decades in Washington, even when it gets him into trouble.
They see Biden’s declarations, separate from his government’s policies, as reactions not just to the horrifying scenes in Ukraine, but also to political pressure at home to say and do more in response to Russia’s invasion.
To David Axelrod, former adviser to the ever-cautious Obama, Biden's remark that Putin “cannot remain in power” illustrated the Washington adage that “everyone’s strength is their weakness.”
Biden's strength is his empathy and authenticity, Axelrod said on his recent podcast, and that can also be a weakness when a president says the wrong thing in a time of crisis.
The risk from off-the-cuff remarks is hardly new with Biden. In 2016, Axelrod foresaw a similar concern from Trump's capacity for highly contentious comments.
“You can’t, when you’re president of the United States, just shoot first and think about it later in terms of what you say," he said then, "because people can actually start shooting based on what you say."