Biden’s candidness can get him in trouble

WASHINGTON DC (The Hill): President Biden is known to speak his mind candidly, so much so that he often catches himself mid-sentence.

“Anyway, I’m telling you too much,” he told reporters during a gaggle following the Sept. 11 events last weekend, when asked about the state of unity in the country.

Such remarks are typical for Biden. He often jokes that he’ll “be in trouble” with his staff for his bluntness, even as he diverts from prepared statements and talking points to go off script. “As you’ve heard me say before: No one ever doubts I mean what I say,” Biden told CNN’s Don Lemon during a town hall in July, repeating one of his favorite quips. “The problem is I sometimes say all that I mean.” The blunt and candid moments are quintessential Biden but they sometimes get the president, long known for his gaffes, into trouble. At other times, they can corner the president.

When Biden was asked last month about the constitutionality of his orders extending an eviction moratorium, he didn’t dodge the question and instead commented on how most lawyers thought he was over-reaching his powers. “The bulk of the constitutional scholarship says that it’s not likely to pass constitutional muster,” Biden said in a moment of frankness that did nothing to help administration lawyers. The Supreme Court ended up siding with the bulk. Biden also insisted during an impromptu exchange with reporters in July that the Taliban was “highly unlikely” to overrun Afghanistan and that the U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t resemble the fall of Saigon. The president proved to be way off with those remarks, which contributed to the most difficult month of his presidency so far.

While in each case Biden might have been better off speaking more carefully, political observers say that his penchant for telling it like it is overall represents an asset for Biden. They argue it makes him more relatable to voters, even if he does go too far sometimes. “I think one of Biden’s skills for communicating is the combination of telling it like it is but also speaking about things like a normal human being and not someone who was raised in a petri dish at a think tank,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “People value authenticity and being yourself. And since he does that people appreciate it and don’t care as much when he gets accused of gaffes.”

Others say the candidness humanizes the president.

“Biden’s super-power is his perceived innate decency and ‘Average Joe-ness,’” said Fernand Amandi, the Democratic strategist and pollster. “He projects this sincere genuineness which is why he won the primary and the presidency. His blunt talk — which is a blessing and a curse — has given him his signature moments as a candidate and as president.”

Biden is also not shy about disagreeing with the premise of a reporter’s question and has from time to time bemoaned the press for being too pessimistic.

After he delivered remarks on the suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members in Afghanistan last month, Biden tangled with Fox News’s Peter Doocy over former President Trump’s deal with the Taliban, playfully dubbing Doocy as “the most interesting guy that I know in the press.”

At times, Biden’s frankness can be compared to his predecessor, Trump, who was known for his free-wheeling press conferences, unscripted tirades and abrupt policy shifts, though observers note that Biden is much more subdued than Trump in his blunt moments. “The willingness to veer from a script is a point of similarity between Biden and Trump,” said William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. While Biden can at times be blunt or deviate from his scripted remarks, Trump took the practice to an entirely new level. He would tweet at all times of night and day, often announcing new policy moves in under 140 characters that caught even his staff off guard.

Howell observed that whenever Trump did have to read from a script “you could see him kind of white-knuckling it.”

“By comparison, I think Biden actually looks reasonably disciplined, but not as disciplined as Obama who was frankly more articulate than both our last two presidents and more disciplined in terms of staying on message,” Howell said.

Biden’s style is nothing new, and can be recognized in his actions and interactions during his time as a senator representing Delaware. “He is known for his capacity to empathize with people in trouble and to connect with ordinary citizens who don’t have any particular standing,” said William Galston, chair of the Brooking Institution’s governance studies program. “In that way, he is an empathetic egalitarian who doesn’t just respond to rank or status.” Biden’s poll numbers have taken a hit the last month or so as the president has been damaged by criticism of how he ended the war in Afghanistan, and amid fatigue over the pandemic.

Earlier this month, an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll showed him with a 43 percent approval rating, down 6 points from a survey in July. Amandi pointed to Biden’s speech on Afghanistan as a defining moment, where his blunt talk helped him even as his presidency hit a low point. A day after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Biden delivered a full-throated defense of his decision to exit the country by Aug. 31. He acknowledged that his administration hadn’t expected the Afghan government to fall so quickly, disagreed with criticism of the chaotic nature of the withdrawal and argued that the 20-year war was no longer serving national interests.

“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit,” Biden said.

“It didn’t do anything for the hardcore partisans but for the average American, he won a lot of those folks back by the plain-spokenness and bluntness of that speech,” Amandi contended. Biden allies say there are times when his frankness can be worrisome. But they say it’s what separates him from other politicians.

I think there’s always the fear that he’ll misspeak or be a little too real, or say something he shouldn’t say,” said one Democratic donor. “But most of the time, nine times out of ten, you know he’s speaking from the heart.”

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