President Biden has come out ahead of some of his own administration’s official lines regarding the Israel-Hamas war, saying early on that another occupation of Gaza would be a mistake and this week suggesting he was only open to the idea of asking for a cease-fire if Hamas released remaining hostages.
Officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security spokesperson John Kirby have been carefully tiptoeing around questions regarding Israel’s expected ground invasion into Gaza, humanitarian aid to Palestinians caught in a war zone and threats of a wider conflict in the region.
But the president’s answers to questions from reporters about the volatile matter have been decidedly more candid.
The U.S. response to the war between Israel and Hamas, which spawned in the wake of the surprise Oct. 7 attack on Israel, marks the latest example of Biden getting ahead of the official line, particularly when it comes to some of his top foreign policy issues.
The most glaring example of that during his presidency was when he said in a speech in Warsaw, Poland, that Russia President Vladimir Putin can’t remain in power in the early weeks of the Ukraine war. More recently, he used a campaign fundraiser — the type of event at which he’s been known to speak frequently off-the-cuff — to declare China President Xi Jinping a dictator.
Since the war broke out, Biden has maintained that an Israeli occupation of Gaza should not be an option, a notion Israel also appears to concur with. But he has also warned Israel to use some rationale in its response, lest it repeat the mistakes of the U.S. post-9/11.
And while administration officials been careful to sidestep the notion that the U.S. is directing Israel’s response or plans in any way, Biden himself seems to suggest their behind-the-scenes talks are more direct than they’re letting on, including discussing how to safely release the hostages ahead of a ground invasion.
“What I have indicated to him is that if that’s possible, to get these folks out safely, that’s what he should do. It’s their decision, but I did not demand it. I pointed out to him: If it’s real, it should be done,” Biden said of his conversations with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A sticking point that has emerged in recent days is whether to trust information coming out of the Gaza Health Ministry, a government agency run by Hamas, which politically control the Gaza Strip. During a press conference alongside the Australian prime minister on Wednesday, Biden said he has “no confidence” in the ministry’s official death toll, which has indicated more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its offensive.
That left Kirby being faced with follow-up questions Thursday on the president’s remarks, in which Biden said he believed innocents had been killed in Gaza but that it was the “price of waging a war,” which some Muslim and Arab groups deemed insensitive and said the president should apologize for. Kirby maintained the White House accepts Palestinian civilians have been killed but cannot confirm how many.
One reason for Biden’s candidness is sometimes his jousting with the reporters asking the questions, as he did during the press conference Wednesday. A reporter asked a follow-up question on the hostages, prompting Biden to interject: “You want to make a speech?”
“He likes the repartee with reporters. You see, he enjoys it. When you do something like that, he likes to have his sort of gotcha moment, sometimes with reporters, and that ends up maybe going further than then he would have wanted,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management master’s program at George Washington University.
Biden’s allies say one reason he’s so comfortable speaking unscripted about foreign policy issues is his decades-long experience as a senator, including as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“President Biden is very comfortable in the foreign and security policy space and is setting the direction for his administration to follow,” said former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a senior policy adviser at Nossaman. “More so than most presidents in recent memory, President Biden has the experience, acumen, and relationships to successfully manage the crisis in Gaza.”
“Few global leaders, and essentially no other U.S. leaders, have the kind of relationship with Netanyahu that enable frank and honest discussions on how to contain the conflict while concurrently protecting Israeli interests,” Carney said.
That foreign policy background was on full display in March 2022, when Biden said during a passionate speech in Warsaw that Putin can’t remain in power, a comment that was later walked back by the White House after interpretations indicated he was calling for a change in power in another country.
Biden has long been known to speak offhand and has at times had unfortunate gaffes, which have spelled more trouble for him than perhaps other political leaders.
“His style has always been to speak off the cuff, and it’s gotten him into problems as vice president as a candidate and of course, as president, so this is nothing new for him,” Belt said. “He does like to go off-script a bit; most politicians do. It’s just sometimes when he goes off-script, he ends up getting other political players in a little bit of hot water.”
Another surprise remark made this year that was met with shockwaves was when Biden, during a fundraiser in California, called Xi a dictator who got upset when a Chinese spy balloon was shot down early this year because he didn’t know about it.
The candid rhetoric from the president is typical when he is speaking to donors, especially in small settings where Biden tends to make news from speaking freely, when cameras aren’t in the room and just a small group of journalists are there to report what he says.
Those candid comments will be even more common when the 2024 campaign picks up and Biden traverses the country to raise money. Donors, Belt said, now anticipate that personal style from him.
“It’s something people expect when they want to have some face time with a candidate or with the president. They expect him to be speaking in a way that is not scripted and not just another canned speech they can watch on TV,” Belt said.