Joe Biden says the right things — in Lithuania. But does that even count?

Biden gave a forceful speech on the Ukraine war and the climate crisis. Was anyone in America paying attention?

By Brian Karem


Published July 13, 2023 9:21AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden speaks alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during a G7 declaration of joint support for Ukraine on July 12, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Paul Ellis - Pool/Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden speaks alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during a G7 declaration of joint support for Ukraine on July 12, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Paul Ellis - Pool/Getty Images)

This week I spoke to a longtime contact of mine who told me he had to swim to work.

He wasn't bragging. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont, and both his office and his home were under water.

It's all about the communication.

Meanwhile, President Biden stepped onto the stage in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Wednesday and gave a classic Joe Biden speech, devoid of rancor and with plenty of energy.

He spoke about the G7, NATO, the war in Ukraine and, yes, climate change.

He was immediately eviscerated in certain circles as "Sleepy Joe," the proponent of the "Forever War" or "Cocaine Joe," who heads a crime family intent on destroying the United States. 

Biden said, "The world is changing" —  what his opponents heard was that he is destroying it. Or at least that's what they want you to believe.

It always boils down to communication.

Or, if you prefer, a communication breakdown. And yes, it's always the same — especially in politics. It's enough to drive you insane. Thank you, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, John Bonham and Robert Plant for that earworm.

If you're an American voter, chances are you've said at one point or another that politicians won't talk about the issues. If you're a politician, you know that talking about certain issues turns off many voters. Either voters don't understand the issues, or they don't want to confront them — so you're at risk of alienating the very people you need to get elected.

If you are Donald Trump, of course, it's all about you.

Before an estimated crowd of 10,000 at Vilnius University, Biden bluntly confronted two of the most problematic issues facing us as we ramp up toward the 2024 presidential election: the war in Ukraine and climate change.

Joe Biden's entire administration suffers from the "Cool Hand Luke" syndrome: What we have here is a failure to communicate.

In the case of climate change, it's easy to walk into Congress with a snowball and denounce climate change as a hoax, or to ignore the issue completely on the campaign trail. It's hard as hell to ignore it after the deluge in the Northeast this past week that caused hundreds of millions in damage. It's even harder to ignore that scientists say the earth is hotter now than it's been in recorded history — and maybe since the dinosaurs roamed the earth (hand in hand with humans, according to the creationists among us). As the New York Times reported this week, all this is driven by two main factors: continued emissions of heat-trapping gasses, mainly caused by humans burning oil, gas and coal; and the return of El Niño, a cyclical weather pattern.

That news is scaring climatologists and other scientists, including Brian McNoldy, a research scientist at the University of Miami (that would be in Florida, for you Ron DeSantis fans) who told the Times it was hard to get his head around the scary numbers.

This turns people off — because it's a bummer, man. Who wants to admit that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution we have soiled our own nest, and our children will suffer because of our stupidity? And yet there was Joe Biden, saying, "You know, we all must summon the will to actually address the existential threat of accelerating climate change. It's real. It's serious. We don't have a lot of time. It is the single greatest threat to humanity."

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For voters, that may be tough to face. But for strategic planning purposes, it cannot be denied. You know who has to deal with it? The Department of Defense. "It's a lot," a DOD contact told me. "Climate change? It's part of our planning now. It's not something we talk about all the time, but then again we don't have to — it's settled for us. You can't deny changes in coastlines, or how climate is affecting us when our success depends on understanding our environment." Nice to know that our military leaders, at least on this issue, seem to be grounded in reality. 

By calling it the greatest threat to humanity in a major international speech, the president obviously understands reality. One person inside the Biden administration told me, "We mention it often and everywhere."

That's where I think they've got it wrong. The Biden administration suffers from the "Cool Hand Luke" syndrome: What we have here is a failure to communicate. I would argue that Biden doesn't communicate often anywhere, and that the climate, along with infrastructure, abortion and the economy, are things he should talk about every day to everyone.

"Will we staunch the climate crisis before it is too late?" Biden asked the world in his speech. "It is only by working together that we'll prevent the worst consequences of climate change from ravaging our future and that of our children and grandchildren."

You won't hear much talk about this on the campaign trail from Biden's potential opponents in either party. Ron DeSantis would rather scream about where "woke goes to die," when most of us thought Florida was where old people go to die. DeSantis has roughly the appeal of day-old roadkill and has been recently declared DOA by the donor class of the GOP. Rupert Murdoch has apparently soured on Florida's governor as a potential nominee, effectively leaving the GOP with a twice-impeached former president under felony indictments in New York and in federal court as their standard-bearer. They must be so proud.

Donald Trump (remember him?) is too busy trying to get his Mar-a-Lago felony trial postponed indefinitely so he can, as he hopes, win the election and then have his handpicked attorney general drop the charges as he issues sweeping pardons to all his partners in crimes real and potential. He does not talk about climate change, unless it has something to do with his golf courses. As long as the back nine is in good shape, he's OK.

Biden discusses it as part of an overall strategy and continues to say that we "stand at an inflection point" — that's become a trademark phrase — while also saying he is hopeful we will make the right decisions.

Which is why during his trip to Lithuania he met with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine and discussed the other major issue that affects all of our lives. Biden told Zelenskyy that Ukraine wouldn't be invited to join NATO quite yet, but also said, "One thing Zelenskyy understands, whether or not he is in NATO now is not relevant," because the alliance stands with Ukraine and it is getting stronger. Biden's message to Vladimir Putin and Russia was that NATO stands united. In the background of this issue is the troubling possibility of a nuclear confrontation with Russia. So far, it appears that Biden has played the situation masterfully, weakening Russia and strengthening NATO, without risking any real threat of an escalating situation that could blow up into a world war.

Putin started the war, but many Republicans now want to blame Biden for it — and scare us into believing that a nuclear conflagration is imminent and our support for Ukraine is a disaster.

This is one issue Republican candidates have not been afraid to address — because they can use it to scare voters. Even though Putin started the war, many in the GOP try to blame Biden for it, and to scare us into believing that the chance of nuclear conflagration is growing exponentially each day and that our support for Ukraine is a disaster. Trump has been the most outspoken on this, claiming that the Ukraine war is a fiasco, and an example of nefarious collusion between the Biden family and Ukrainian business. He also calls it part of the Democrats' "forever war" strategy: He wants the U.S. to get out of Ukraine, and has never been a fan of NATO.

Those words portend disaster. If the U.S. abandons Ukraine, Russia would most likely take it over, and Putin might want to extend his hegemony with additional incursions elsewhere. Since he wants to get the old Soviet Union band back together, we know where that might lead. It doesn't favor those who support democracy.

Many of Trump's critics say he's a Putin puppet. His cult members see him as a savior. Biden doesn't talk about Trump much — what he does say is that the war could end today if Putin would quit being such an asshole and go home. Don't expect that to happen anytime soon either, despite the recent short-lived uprising by the Wagner Group.

Again, it's all about the communication. Trump uses his Svengali act to mesmerize millions into believing he cares about them, when it's obvious that he is only running for president to try and keep his aging, flaccid backside out of prison.

DeSantis has no idea what he's doing — only that he hates "woke." In other words, he isn't into empathy or leadership, unless it involves being a racist despot. Both he and Trump, through coercion and fear, push the boundaries as they seek authority and power for themselves — and the cost to the rest of us is life-threatening.

My longtime contact in Vermont told me he'd lost a lifetime of family memories in the devastating flood. He'd long ago lost faith in world leaders to do anything about climate change even as its effects are more dramatic every day. "That tells you how screwed I think we are," he said. "I'm still holding out hope we don't blow the world up first."

Like I said, it's all about the communication — at least if you want to get re-elected. 

Biden said we face a choice "between a world defined by coercion and exploitation, where might makes right, or a world where we recognize that our own success is bound to the success of others."

Good words. Now come back home, Mr. President, and talk with us a bit more. The Brady Briefing Room awaits. We'd love to talk to you on the South Lawn or the East Room or even (God forbid) in the heatsink of the Rose Garden.

It's all about the communication.

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 Donald Trump Joe Biden Nato Republicans Russia Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy War