When President Biden ad-libbed a line about how Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” he was echoing a popular global sentiment, albeit one with enormous gravity.
The unscripted remark on its own suggested a dramatic shift in U.S. policy about regime change in Russia before the White House worked hurriedly to walk it back. To some, it was seen as a moment of candor by a president whose decades-long political career had him entrenched in foreign policy matters – one in which he now stands on the world stage.
Others say that Biden’s tendency toward candidness is a dual-edged sword. It helps him relate to regular Americans but also at times has become a problem for a White House that has tried to stay disciplined in its message.
Time and again, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, Biden has hardly left the public guessing about his feelings and intentions. But the moment in Warsaw, Poland, threatened to upset his administration’s carefully crafted policy on Russia with the eyes of the world watching in what was arguably one of the most pivotal moments of his presidency.
“It was classic Biden in a moment when he really can’t or shouldn’t be that guy,” said one Democratic strategist who agreed with the sentiment but wondered about its ramifications. “It’s clear it’s how he really feels about the guy, but he didn’t need to show all his cards in that moment.”
Biden has had a long history of speaking with no filter when it comes to matters of foreign policy. At times, it has set him back.
When he was vice president, for example, he was forced to phone leaders in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to apologize after making public comments suggesting those countries were contributing to extremist groups in Syria.
But it has also been helpful to him, particularly during the 2020 presidential election, when he was up against former President Trump, a man infamous for relentlessly firing off insults and speaking off the cuff, upending his administration in the process.
“There was a time in Joe Biden’s political career when his candor was a detriment and then it advanced to a place where it was an asset,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “Now you have to harness the Biden candor to balance it against the limitations of being head of state.”
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine last month, Biden spoke almost too openly in January when addressing the build up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.
After predicting that Putin would “move in” on Ukraine, Biden suggested during a press conference that a “minor incursion” into the country by the Kremlin may not inspire a strong international response.
The White House was again on cleanup duty – this time to clarify the remarks by saying that any Russian troops crossing the border into Ukraine would constitute an invasion.
“I think it matters what side of the bed he gets up on in the morning as to what he’s going to do,” Biden said of the Russian leader.
The parlor talk was surprising to foreign policy analysts and political observers alike who aren’t accustomed to such candor out of the West Wing.
Biden also made news, just days before the Russian invasion, when he declared of Putin, “As of this moment, I am convinced he’s made the decision.” That caught even the Ukrainians by surprise.
Biden on Monday said he was expressing his own “moral outrage” at Putin’s behavior and not articulating a change in U.S. policy when answering questions from reporters about his Saturday remark. He also stood firmly by his comments, which he made following a visit to see Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
“I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel,” Biden said. “I make no apologies for it.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that Biden’s comments struck him as genuine and that the president was, on one hand, probably speaking for a lot of Americans.
“His style is ‘shoot from the hip’ and always has been,” O’Hanlon said, noting that’s part of Biden’s political and personal appeal. “He sometimes just tells you what he thinks without worrying too much about how it’s going to sound.”
Still, O’Hanlon expressed concern that Biden’s Saturday statement, combined with his recent harsh rhetoric about Putin, suggest the White House is “disengaged” from the peace process between Russia and Ukraine.
“We should very much be in the peace process conversation,” O’Hanlon said. “We should be thinking harder about how to incentivize both sides to reach a tolerable, least-bad compromise to end the conflict.”
Biden has eviscerated Putin in public comments, recently calling him a “war criminal” in an offhand exchange with a reporter. It came despite the administration sidestepping that language before an official determination had been made about Russian strikes on civilian areas in Ukraine.
Biden has also used the words “butcher,” “thug” and “murderous dictator” to describe the Russian leader.
Even before the invasion, Biden said last year he believed Putin was a killer. When Biden, as vice president, met with Putin in 2011, he told the Russian president he believed he had “no soul,” Biden wrote in his book, “Promise Me Dad.”
Biden and Putin, however, had seemed to keep up a working rapport, including meeting for several hours in Geneva last summer months after Biden became president.
There are signs Biden’s statement on Putin, however, suggests it will further crater U.S-Russia relations.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the remark a “personal insult” and “completely unacceptable” in an interview with PBS.
An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Monday noted, “At what point does Joe Biden’s verbal incontinence start to become a moral threat to Americans?”
“It’s one thing to misidentify your vice president as the first lady, quite another to call for the ouster of an autocratic and bellicose leader of a nation with nuclear weapons. That is the kind of thing that can trigger wars and could result in the annihilation of much of humanity.”
But Democratic strategists say Biden is being true to himself.
“In the moment, he was saying what he truly felt,” said Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau. “There was an exasperation that not only he feels, but leaders around the world feel.”
“No one is saying that sentiment is wrong,” Mollineau added. “It’s just that he said it out loud.”