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Biden says he was expressing moral outrage when saying Putin shouldn't stay in power

President Joe Biden takes questions from the media alongside Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young as he introduces his budget request for fiscal year 2023.
Anna Moneymaker
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President Joe Biden takes questions from the media alongside Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young as he introduces his budget request for fiscal year 2023.

Updated March 28, 2022 at 6:04 PM ET

President Biden is defending controversial remarks he made over the weekend in which he appeared to call for regime change in Russia — off-script comments that were quickly walked back by his administration.

"I am not walking anything back," he told reporters at the White House on Monday, after speaking about the release of his budget proposal. "I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it."

On Saturday, Biden capped a trip to Europe, where he met with fellow NATO leaders and delivered a forceful address in Poland about Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the unity of Western democracies.

But headlines from the speech focused on an ad-libbed closing line about Russian President Vladimir Putin: "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power."

His administration quickly downplayed the remark, telling reporters that the president's comments did not signal a policy change.

Biden's point, a White House official stressed to NPR, "was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin's power in Russia, or regime change."

Biden said Monday: "I just was expressing my outrage. He shouldn't remain in power — just like, you know, bad people shouldn't continue to do bad things."

Political fallout for Biden

The closing line was chalked up to another gaffe by a politician who is prone to them, an ad-libbed moment, but one with the potential to cause consternation with Western powers. The speech was about NATO unity and NATO leaders had been speaking from the same script — until Biden's remark.

The comment came as recent polls have found most U.S. voters doubting Biden's ability to handle the Ukraine crisis.

"It was a mistake, clearly," former Democratic Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a onetime U.S. ambassador to China,said on Fox News over the weekend. "He may think that personally — I think a lot of Americans think that personally — but he is the president of the United States, so he cannot say that publicly.

"The more the United States says things like that publicly," Baucus added, "the more it closes our potential negotiations between all the parties who are involved here, the more it corners Putin, the more Putin might get more dangerous."

Other Democratic strategists, however, say the criticism is overwrought. After all, majorities have also been telling pollsters that Biden needs to be stronger.

"Politically, I actually think the president is where most of the American people are," said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist and veteran of the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign. "And I think in a moment where the president is struggling to kind of stay above water or get above water with his popularity, I think the president may be saying something off the cuff that's going to register well with most of the country."

But Payne cautioned that Biden has to be careful not to cut into his appeal of competence — an attribute that took a big hit with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.

And he echoed Baucus in noting that Biden's comment put him in a diplomatic box.

"Politically, it short term may help the president," Payne said, "but I think long term, I think it complicates how the administration has to approach the crisis."

Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist and former senior adviser in the Clinton White House, cheered Biden's off-the-cuff remark.

He called Biden's Warsaw speech "historic" and believes it "will rank right up there" with iconic Cold War moments from presidential addresses, like when John F. Kennedy in 1963 gave his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in West Berlin, and Ronald Reagan's call to Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" between West and East Germany in 1987.

"As for so-called gaffes," Begala said, "I think this will go down in history, like when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the 'Evil Empire' — and the legend is his staff didn't want him to do it. He fought and he fought, and he just said it, because he thought it. And I think that's what Biden did. And I think he's probably speaking for the vast majority of people, certainly in our country, but probably around the world."

For U.S. voters, economic issues are No. 1

Still, even if the quote is received that way, domestic issues, particularly inflation, are weighing Biden down.

"Biden is a little more all over the map domestically," Begala said. "And I support him, of course; I'm a Democrat. But I believe just as a communications matter, he has lost the thread of the threat domestically."

He pointed out that Republicans have been able to take hold of the narrative domestically despite voting against popular items like the expanded child tax credit or standing in the way of the government being able to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

"Republicans have voted against some of the most popular domestic proposals I have ever seen," Begala said, "and they're paying no price for it. Why? The Democrats are not making them pay a price."

But when it comes to how Biden is handling Putin and Ukraine, Begala thinks Biden has done a good job standing up to him.

"He knows Putin is evil, and he knows that weakness invites aggression, and he's going to meet that evil man with steel," he said. "And I think he's been terrific on that. ... Walt Disney used to say, 'My movies are only as good as my villains are evil.' And I think that's true in political messaging."

When asked if he was ready to meet his Russian counterpart, Biden said Monday: "It depends on what he wants to talk about."

The two men met last met face to face in Geneva in June 2021.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.