It is not a crisis of competence. It’s not that he won’t take responsibility, and it certainly isn’t that using a teleprompter means he should be impeached. Joe Biden’s problem is part of one of society’s greatest problems: His administration is simply horrible at communicating.
On August 16, President Biden cut short a vacation and flew from Camp David to the White House to make a short speech about the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan. He explained why he decided to remove our troops, acknowledged that the collapse of the Afghan government came more quickly than anticipated, and in a Harry Truman fashion said, “The buck stops with me.”
He then disappeared from public view as the evacuation of Afghanistan ramped up, finally re-emerging on August 20 to speak to the American people, as members of the public began to (unfairly) equate the evacuation of Kabul to the 1975 evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
He again told us the buck stopped with him, and that based on the advice he’d been given—apparently including some intelligence reports that hinted that the Taliban could quickly overrun Afghanistan—he decided to end our participation in Afghan security and leave the country anyway, convinced any collapse would take much longer than it actually did. He referenced a previous agreement brokered by former President Trump with the Taliban to leave, noting that we did not go to Afghanistan to engage in nation-building.
But millions of Americans were angry. Some are convinced Biden stumbled badly, some will never give him the benefit of the doubt, and some were left confused at what outlying circumstances led to the quick collapse of the Afghan government and why. That’s partly because of what Biden said in the East Room a month ago:
“The Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped—as well-equipped as any army in the world—and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable. . . I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.”
He had to eat those words. He did, and for the rest of that week, he had been roundly criticized for the move to get America out of Afghanistan. The Vietnam comparisons, though laughably inaccurate, have rebounded across social media and the press.
The hubbub regarding Biden’s actions is even more incredible when you consider that most Americans wanted us out of Afghanistan and thought we should never have been there in the first place. George W. Bush put us there, so why are so many people angry with Biden for doing “the right thing”?
Is it because the country is so divisive he cannot communicate to people who are never going to accept him? Or is it becau›se he and other politicians cannot effectively communicate to the American people and thus we have become more divisive? I firmly believe it is the latter.
Biden’s performance in the East Room demonstrates the arrogant resolve this administration has in its need to control narratives, limit press interaction with the president, and attempt to co-opt members of the media to keep down any questions regarding his actions. Why even have the speech in the East Room? At the beginning of last week, he took no questions from reporters. At the end of the week, he took five questions from a pre-selected group of reporters who were allowed to attend the briefing, while all the rest—including many foreign journalists—were excluded from the largest room in the White House, which in the past has easily hosted most of the press covering the president.
In this regard, Biden is no different than other politicians who believe that the free press specifically, and the public in general, can be dictated to at some level, and that this will have to be accepted. Most politicians do not look at the press as a conduit to the public, or if they do, they still do not respect reporters or their questions. I have met few politicians who truly respect the public or the press. Since many politicians see the public as a fanbase to be coaxed into cheering their efforts rather than a constituency to be served, it is easy to understand why politicians fail.
Joe Biden‘s mistake is that by not communicating fully with the public, and not exposing himself and members of his administration to a greater number of constituents, he remains insulated from what the public really thinks. He works within a bubble and so do most mainstream reporters. He’s limiting access only to reporters who he believes benefits him. Journalists who get access believe it benefits them. But it benefits no one.
As they say, the devil is in the details, and it benefits a president and by extension the entire country and the world, to have as many voices asking him as many questions as possible.
As former presidential press secretary Mike McCurry once told me, he learned as much from press briefings as the Clinton administration hoped the press would learn from them—and the Clinton administration adapted policies based on what was asked of the president and his press secretary by the press. It is difficult to get that perspective when you limit your interactions with the public.
Today Biden’s defenders tell us, “Hey, he’s better than Trump,” implying that we should accept whatever the president says or does. It’s not that Biden is no better than Trump. He’s much better than Trump. But that’s not the point.
The point is, the Biden administration and every presidential administration I’ve covered has contributed to the erosion of free speech and the downfall of a free press. Being less offensive than your predecessor isn’t something to hang your hat on—and it certainly won’t help convince your detractors.
Members of the Biden administration seemed stunned and angry that the president has received just negative reviews for his actions of Afghanistan, but they only have themselves to blame. Limited interaction with the public leads to a variety of results across the globe, and most of them are not good.
If Biden wants to truly bring people together as he says, then he and his staff should get better at communicating—both in transmitting and receiving communications. At the end of the day, Biden said he alone is responsible for the decision.
So, Mr. President, what did you do wrong?
Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter’s right to keep confidential sources.