Biden's biggest mistake: It wasn't what he said about Putin — it was taking it back

Biden spoke from the heart, and people around the world were grateful. Only pundits and politicos were horrified

By Brian Karem


Published March 29, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden holds a briefing outside the Royal Palace, Warsaw, Poland. (Anna Voitenko/Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden holds a briefing outside the Royal Palace, Warsaw, Poland. (Anna Voitenko/Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

WARSAW — It may go down as Joe Biden's biggest mistake since he took office.

As the president emerged from Catholic church service in Georgetown on Sunday evening, a reporter asked him, "Mr. President, do you want Putin removed? Mr. President, were you calling for regime change?"

Biden simply said, "No."

Less than 24 hours earlier, speaking just a metaphorical stone's-throw away from Russia, he had said something completely different about Russian President Vladimir Putin: "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power." Biden has also described Putin as a war criminal, a thug and a brute.

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He said that after meeting with refugees from Putin's chosen war and seeing the suffering of the Ukrainian people first hand. He reacted as a grandfather, as a father and as any empathetic human being would. Biden's pronouncement in Poland sparked activity on my Signal app from former American military personnel in Poland and Ukraine on humanitarian efforts. A Trump-loving former member of the American military praised Biden. "About damn time," he said.

I got messages from the driver I hired in Ukraine who lost his family. "Thank God someone said this," he told me. Others were equally effusive in their praise for the bluntness and candor of Biden's simple nine-word statement. "The world now sees," the pastor of a mission providing relief effort to the displaced Ukraine citizens told me.

The cheers came from ordinary people in all walks of life around the world. Those who didn't like it were other world leaders. So, a few minutes after Biden left the stage in Poland, the White House issued a hasty retraction denying that Biden had decided to advocate for regime change in Russia.

The headlines and the pundits naturally fell in line and talked about what a horrible gaffe the president had committed. He was taken to task for giving Putin an opening to proceed with further atrocities against the innocent people of Ukraine. Such statements show an incredible lack of insight; Putin has already shown he will manipulate and conjure up facts, with an ease and flair that would make Donald Trump jealous, to justify the atrocities he has already inflicted and those he plans to inflict. Whatever Biden did would be twisted to suit Putin. At least Biden spoke the truth as he saw it.

The pundits say Biden made an egregious mistake with his statement. Allow me to zig while others zag: The mistake wasn't in making the statement. The mistake was in retracting it.  

Whether or not you agree with the statement, it was made. It was blunt. It was game-changing. Walking it back undercut everything else done on the trip — let's be as blunt as Biden was in his statement — all of which was meant to put Putin in a box. Biden and NATO emerged stronger after the trip to Brussels, where Western leaders vowed to stand firm. There was no waffling. When Biden showed up to greet the 82nd Airborne, he was reminding the world of America's professional military muscle, vetted and able to act. His public speech in Poland rivaled that of any American president made during wartime. In response, during Biden's speech Putin fired missiles at Lviv, Ukraine, just a few miles from the hotel I stayed in.

I thought the president was candid and clear in Poland. He didn't say anything that I hadn't heard thousands of Ukrainians say in the last 10 days. It isn't anything I hadn't heard Americans, some Russians, Europeans and citizens of the world say during the last month.

Putin is public enemy No. 1 in the world today. If you don't advocate for getting rid of him, when he threatens the safety of the entire world, then what the hell are you about? The president merely echoed the thoughts of those who are suffering, and the hastily-worded correction was crafted by those who are out of touch and immersed in an elitism that few who are suffering can even understand. All world leaders are afraid of anyone advocating regime change — apparently, even when it is needed — for they fear that if you say yes to regime change in Russia today, then tomorrow the mob could overthrow you in your own country. After all, world history is full of such lessons. Nothing frightens the powers that be worse than the prospect of a chaotic rabble rising up to take on a country's leadership — even when it may be warranted.

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I've interviewed grandmothers from eastern, southern and central Ukraine whose insults for Putin would make drunken sailors, truck drivers and longshoremen blush. I've spoken with Russians who can't stand the man. I spoke to a Polish cab driver who is afraid his grandson will never get a chance to grow old because Putin will torch the world. And while Putin's actions should be everyone's concern, the White House staff is too busy trying to play polite politics with a man who deserves nothing but a padded cell, limited access to other humans and only enough daily rations to keep him adequately fed. 

They don't get it.

The White House also felt the need to correct the president on two other occasions while on his European trip — and Biden's staff just don't seem to understand that doing so projects an aura of weakness. It hurts the president and it damages his message. Donald Trump never corrected a thing he said. His minions in the White House usually shrugged their shoulders and said, "The president said what he said," leaving it to everyone else to try and figure it out. That also played to his base, who defended Trump for speaking his mind when others wouldn't. 

Every time Biden speaks his mind, his underlings are afraid of gaffes and blowback. So in an attempt to protect him, they weaken him and the office of the presidency. American interests are not served in such fashion. Not that corrections shouldn't be made when warranted — but was Biden wrong? Was his emotional and visceral response to the suffering of millions in error? 

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One thing the White House staff doesn't get, can't understand and can't communicate about the current fight in Ukraine is a phenomenon as old as our country: America loves an underdog. Most Americans understand the Ukrainian fight that way, and they're likely to back our president when he stands up for the underdog.

America has always loved underdogs because America started out as an underdog. Whether or not you think America has morphed into something uglier or greater than that in subsequent years is a matter for a different column and limited inspiration.

We see it in our novels, our movies and TV shows. Hollywood embraces this and perpetuates it. There's something about persevering in the face of violent opposition from mediocre minds that draws everyone in. We all side with the "Star Wars" rebels. 

Our love of the underdog knows no limits. All are invited to join — we'll even take converts from the evil empire. We pay homage to the spirit of the underdog when we side with Saint Peter's in the NCAA tournament, or root for a team that's never won the Big Game.

That's why, when Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, "I need ammunition, not a ride," people around the world rallied to him. His struggle emboldened us all. So when he took Western leaders to task this weekend for a lack of courage, that too landed squarely with Americans. If Biden wants to figure out why his approval ratings are so low, perhaps he should re-examine those crafting his message. He's done fine, gaffes and all, when he speaks for himself. When others do it — not so much.

I spoke with mayors from Ukraine, Ukrainian military personnel and refugees from eastern Ukraine who understand the tightrope the Western world walks. "I wish them to make the right decisions," Adriana, a mother of three, told me last weekend outside Lviv. "But I hope they understand what we have lost when they decide."

Biden leads a battle while trying to walk that tightrope. The threat of Putin using weapons of mass destruction is real and growing. Biden's visceral reaction to Putin during his speech in Poland is thus put in the proper frame: The fear is that without regime change in Moscow, the quality of life on the planet is in danger of being reduced to that of primitive man huddled in caves — if we survive at all. 

RELATED: Putin's endgame: Will it be stalemate, nuclear war — or regime change in Moscow? 

No one really wants to confront that possibility — it's too horrific to face squarely. But you cannot dance around the head of a pin and you can't allow Putin to hold the world hostage while he tries to dominate the globe for the greater glory of himself.

Zelenskyy confronted the reticence of the West with a simple question this weekend. "So who runs the Euro-Atlantic community? Is it still Moscow because of intimidation?" he asked in a late-night weekend speech. "Let Russia know that the truth will not remain silent. And let every nation in the world feel the depth of Russia's injustice against Ukraine. Against everything that keeps the world within morality and humanity."

Zelenskyy has galvanized the world against Putin with his words, and it is time world leaders quit tiptoeing around the grave threat we all face.

The Ukrainian people, more than any other who have faced Putin's wrath in his time as Russia's leader, are showing the world what it takes. Visit an open-air market and see the resilience of the people. Look at the rural farmers who still have horse-drawn wagons with balding Bridgestone tires, on rusting hubs and axles removed from an aging automobile. You haven't lived until you've seen a local merchant loaded down with brush drive through remote Ukraine in a wagon with a Chevy or Ford logo nailed to the back.

These people are living almost the same rugged lifestyle they've lived since the Middle Ages. Some don't have electricity — many heat their humble homes with nothing but firewood. The most strikingly beautiful building in many small communities is their church. Still, they won't give up — and they don't hesitate to call for regime change in Russia. They've seen what Putin is and what he can do. As the mayor of Kyiv said last week, the Ukrainians are fighting for the ideals of democracy embraced by most Europeans. 

Putin has found out that he can't win against such determination. He can only destroy. He can only level the world. Like the man said, some people just want to watch it all burn. Putin, some surmise, saw an easy target in a divided country, parts of which he already occupied. He obviously never had a Plan B if he was wrong. He just continues to embarrass himself, exposed like Donald Trump with the vestiges of his manhood waving in the breeze for everyone to ridicule. Putin is the dark lord of the scythe who dreams of being a Sith, and is exceedingly dangerous and as menacing as a puffy-faced former KGB officer can be. 

So why give Biden grief for calling it as it is? And why would you backtrack? His trip to Eastern Europe helped nail down further sanctions against Russia, reaffirmed the strength of NATO and our commitment to our allies.

Posing with the members of the 82nd Airborne in Poland, Biden was throwing heavy shade at Putin. Delivering his speech that close to Russia, on Polish soil, was another masterful strategic move to show Putin where we stand. It's a sobering day indeed — and, yes, it was meant to intimidate Russia. At the very least it had to get Putin's attention. In the last month Biden has taken off the gloves in characterizing the essence of the former KGB lieutenant who now runs Russia. Biden has declared him a thug, a terrorist and a war criminal.

Biden spent time with refugees, as I did. He spoke to them, as I did, and he came away with the same feeling as a father and a grandfather that I did. The world is unsafe as long as Putin continues this war. Even if he stops and walks away now, he's still done untold damage that will reverberate into our shared future.

Biden was right. His retractions be damned. For the world to achieve any sense of harmony and begin to heal, Putin cannot remain in power.

The question remains how to achieve that goal without risking the end of civilization — and the horror of that thought, not the fear of other leaders and their political concerns, is ultimately why Biden walked away from the obvious statement: Putin must go.

Read more on Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine:

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Joe Biden Poland Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin War