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What Did Biden’s Afghanistan Speech Achieve?

What Did Biden’s Afghanistan Speech Achieve?

Friday, 20 August, 2021 - 04:45

President Joe Biden gave a White House speech on the situation in Afghanistan Monday. Before he spoke, I suggested eight things he should try to do (the eighth being that he should make it short, which of course is a bit of a challenge when it’s the eighth item).

But I’ll take a step back: What’s the point of these speeches, anyway?

What presidential speeches can’t do is change public opinion. Ronald Reagan didn’t do that; nor did Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. And if those presidents couldn’t do it in prime-time addresses, then Biden isn’t going to be able to with an afternoon speech that relatively few people would watch.

So what are they good for?

For one thing, we can think of these speeches as part of representation. Politicians make promises when they campaign, govern with those promises in mind and explain their actions in the context of those promises. For Biden, it was a chance not just to remind everyone about his position on Afghanistan, but to argue that his administration’s actions were consistent with his implicit promise to revive competent, professional governing. Leave aside the question of whether this argument was convincing; the point is that he needed to explain his actions in terms of that promise.

Beyond that, we can think in terms of audiences. For a president’s supporters, a major speech is an opportunity to supply talking points and arguments. It’s not that supporters will always approve of anything that a president does, but those who do — everyone from highly visible party actors to regular voters — will usually be happy to adopt the case the White House makes for itself.

Speeches are also important for signaling policy commitments. Policy decisions are almost always more serious when they’re heard from the presidential mouth, in part because once a president says something then backing off from it will need to be explained. For foreign-policy speeches, that means it’s important not only to clearly signal which decisions have been made — but also to make sure that no nation misunderstands which commitments the president is making.

Another key audience is the neutral media. For them, Biden’s job was to set his actions — and the awful video coming from Kabul — in some sort of context. Presidents may not be able to change public opinion directly, but they (like the news media) can affect what people talk about and how they talk about it. In this case, Biden worked hard to frame the debate on the question of whether or not to leave Afghanistan, rather than how he executed the policy of leaving.

As far as that last point is concerned, don’t forget that Afghanistan hawks and Biden’s political opponents are just as eager to focus the conversation on bad news, rather than on the realistic options available to the US government and its president. For Republicans in particular, focusing on Biden’s real or imagined problems in executing the policy is a way to avoid difficult divisions within their party over both troop deployments and refugees — while everyone can agree that mistakes in carrying out policy are bad, even if they disagree on what the policy should be.

Again, while such speeches are certainly important, it’s easy to put too much emphasis on the most visible portions of the presidency at the expense of policy making and policy execution. That said, the trick for the speech-writing team is to craft something that has several different purposes and is addressed to multiple audiences. Not easy at all. Especially when the topic is essentially bad news. But as Richard Neustadt said long ago, the presidency is no place for amateurs.


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