Mar 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biden’s worldwide walkback

Mike Allen
Joe Biden

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

Saturday's Warsaw address was billed as one of the signature speeches of President Biden's term — perhaps bigger than a State of the Union. Then after a Reaganesque call for "a brighter future rooted in democracy," as a literal last line before his farewell, Biden ad-libbed:

What he's saying: "For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power."

Wait, what?! The U.S. wants to take out Putin? Is calling for regime change?

  • Some variation of Biden's jab instantly led every major news site in the world, starting with CNN, where many world capitals were getting the news: "BIDEN: PUTIN CANNOT REMAIN IN POWER."

Why it matters: The takeaway from a 27-minute speech of massive consequence — on the world stage, a border away from Russian missile strikes in a war zone — was derailed by a taunt.

  • A top official confirmed for Axios that the line wasn't on Biden's teleprompter or in his text.

Within minutes, a White House official was telling reporters: "The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change."

  • This morning, Secretary of State Tony Blinken formally walked it back at a news conference in Jerusalem: "We do not have a strategy of regime change in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter."
  • "It's up to the Russian people," he added.

Between the lines: The true consequence may depend on whether the Kremlin focuses on the words of the commander-in-chief — or the walkback.

  • Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass tweeted: "The White House walk back of @POTUS regime change call is unlikely to wash. Putin will see it as confirmation of what he’s believed all along. Bad lapse in discipline that runs risk of extending the scope and duration of the war."

The bottom line, from a tweet by Matt Yglesias: "[W]hen addressing great power conflict you want to stick to the prepared text."

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