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Together, answers to How often a post WWII US president said publicly that the leader of another country must go? (e.g. "For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power") have listed perhaps a half-dozen times when postwar US presidents have made public statements themselves or via senior white house spokespeople that the leader of another country has got to go.

They also suggest that this is a fairly recent phenomenon, mostly starting with George W. Bush about Iraq's Saddam Hussein and instances for Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now (perhaps in-)famously Joe Biden.

But it seems to me that in the case of Biden's closing sentence of his March 27, 2022 speech in Poland about Vladimir Putin

For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.

there is widespread reference to this off-script sentence as a "gaffe" and that statements by the white house, other cabinet members (e.g. Antony Blinken) and Biden himself meant to "clarify" his statement as "walking it back". Just a few examples:

Question: Why is Biden's "For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power" widely considered a gaffe to be walked back, previous US presidents have made superficially similar statements?

There is one answer to the linked question that while it does not address the question asked does strive to answer this question. The reasons I've asked this new question include the following:

  1. Avoid "mission creep". The previous question was asked only to find out if this kind of a statement on its surface was isolated or if other presidents have made similar (if superficially so) statements.
  2. Allow all users an opportunity to answer this question
  3. ...that future readers will more easily find in searches as they now match the question.
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  • It should be mentioned, that Russia, other then other countrie in which direction US presidents did similar statements, is nuclear power.
    – convert
    Apr 18, 2022 at 14:31
  • @convert and it was! :-)
    – uhoh
    Apr 18, 2022 at 21:00

7 Answers 7

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It's often said that "a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth", and that's very much what's happening here. For the most part, the pushback isn't because people think Putin should stay in power, or because of a sincere belief in political decorum (most probably agree with him), but because they think Biden's off-the-cuff remark was diplomatically unwise.

The primary goals for the US and the West in Ukraine are to help Ukraine preserve their independence (preferably while retaining their economic and military self-sufficiency so they're not a drain on Europe) while avoiding WWIII. Doing that is going to almost certainly require a negotiated settlement where Putin will have to make concessions. Thus, it's important to avoid aggravating or insulting Putin unnecessarily.

This is particularly true if, as seems to be the case, the US doesn't plan on regime change. Coming from the President, a statement like this, even if it's just an off-the-cuff remark with no deeper thought behind it, sounds like a change in policy, and it's an important part of the Press Office to push back, lest it become one (assuming it wasn't intended to be).

To put it another way, it's a problem because the US does not expect or intend regime change in Russia. It was "OK" (at least from the perspective of the US Federal Government) for Bush to talk about the removal of Saddam Hussein or for Obama to talk about the removal of Muammar Gaddafi because that was part of the plan and government policy. Biden made a personal remark that is not in line with government policy, and so the government has to push back since it would be very damaging if people come to believe that it was government policy.

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    "The primary goals for the US and the West in Ukraine are to help Ukraine preserve their independence" - if this was true, they would have agreed to Putin's terms a long time ago, because the official Russian territorial demands are only about Crimea and the separatist regions, not the rest of the country.
    – vsz
    Apr 1, 2022 at 6:45
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    @vsz The Russians in the beginning made more than just territorial demands. They also demanded a change of government
    – slebetman
    Apr 1, 2022 at 7:51
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    @vsz: The issue that also comes to mind from slebetman's statement is that the "Separatist regions" are part of what make Ukraine independence. See for example the Catalan independence movement - when the Spanish Supreme Court disagrees with. Until Spain agrees that Catalan is independent, Spain is the group deciding that Catalan is their land, and thus, is a part of Spain. (Or for less recent, see the British Empire and where it stood on its many former colonies.) Apr 1, 2022 at 9:12
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    @vsz Ukraine would've agreed to Putin's terms to "preserve their independence" if you consider "preserve their independence" to include "give up any parts of their country whenever anyone asks" and "refrain from making any defensive international agreements (e.g. NATO)".
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 1, 2022 at 9:39
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    @vsz Is there any reason to believe any agreement made with Putin will ever be honoured ever again? So Russia invades Crimea and says "Give us Crimea to maintain your independence" and Ukraine says "ok". Then Russia invades Donbas and says "Give us Donbas to maintain your independence" and Ukraine says "ok". Then Russia invades Kyiv and says "Give us Kyiv to maintain your independence" and Ukraine says "ok". This is how you see it going? Apr 1, 2022 at 11:28
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Because there is a difference between thinking out loud and stating an actual wish.

The former is an opinion made public, while the latter, when stated by the POTUS, becomes the policy of the United States.

An opinion, which has not been finalized, should not be made public because it is subject to change pending discussions. While policy is a decision which has been already made. Stating an opinion, while it is still in the process of being formulated, is a gaffe.

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I don't have a link handy, but I've read that it's a faux pas because Russia is a nuclear power and such words weren't publicly uttered during the cold war, with respect to the Soviet leaders.

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    This is the only reasonable answer to me because the other answers does not address why similar statements by previous presidents were considered OK
    – slebetman
    Apr 1, 2022 at 7:47
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    Weeell, Reagan famously said "Russia has been declared illegal. The bombing begins in 5 minutes" before a press conference. It wasn't live yet, but was purposely leaked, so it had the same not-official-but-he-said-it quality. Apr 1, 2022 at 14:50
  • @OwenReynolds youtube.com/watch?v=CFCABnWlN8E
    – Ben Voigt
    Apr 1, 2022 at 18:43
  • @OwenReynolds The closest thing he said about leadership from the Soviet sphere appears to have been about the Polish military government, declaring them a "bunch of no-good, lousy bums" in similarly leaked material. And Biden didn't have the cover of his remarks being either a joke or off-the-record. Apr 2, 2022 at 14:57
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This was not the only thing that Biden said that day
While the single phrase "For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power" is being quoted over and over, it was not the only thing he said: within 24 hours Biden called Putin a "war criminal" and a "butcher". The Biden's speech itself raised quite a few eyebrows, e.g., for repeating an unprovable claim that Putin tries to rebuild the USSR

A dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty. Brutality will never grind down their will to be free. Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia — for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.

(It is worth noting however that the claim about dictator and empire does not appear in the same sentence as Russia, so it is deniable - just like Barack Obama's claim regarding the Benghazi consulate attack being a reaction to an anti-Muslim movie.)

Gaffe or escalation?
Gaffe by definition implies a statement that does not reflects the one's political intentions (at least not the officially stated ones). Unless the Biden's words were a gaffe, they reflect the US policy of aggravating the confrontation with Russia. This does not only mean the implied regime change threat, but also the fact that one could hardly expect the Biden administration to make up with the man whom they called a "war criminal" and a "butcher" - this means the confrontation (and possibly the conflict in Ukraine) continuing for at least till the end of the Biden's presidential term.

Many foreign leaders did interpret this not as a gaffe, but as a deliberate escalation, denouncing Biden's choice of words:
Macron warns against 'escalation' after Biden brands Putin 'butcher'
Germany Says NATO Not Seeking Regime Change In Russia

Similar statements by Biden's predecessors

They also suggest that this is a fairly recent phenomenon, mostly starting with George W. Bush about Iraq's Saddam Hussein and instances for Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now (perhaps in-)famously Joe Biden.

It is not clear what specific statements by Joe Biden's predecessors are meant here. In the case of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussen, the regime change in Iraq was the official US policy. In case of Obama and Gaddafi or Bashar Assad - although in neither case regime change was stated as an official goal, the US did intervene militarily in both Libya nd Syria, and it did produce a regime change in the former.

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    "for repeating an unprovable claim that Putin tries to rebuild the USSR" Actually, that claim isn't unproven. Putin has made multiple statements to that regard.
    – Polygnome
    Apr 1, 2022 at 11:27
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    @Polygnome most of these statements are misquotes. He did say many things about the USSR (as could be expected from the president of Russia), but he has never made official statements to this end.
    – Roger V.
    Apr 1, 2022 at 11:35
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I hate to say it, but this is function of left-over Colonial attitudes (still reflected in the distinction between developed and developing nations). It is acceptable to suggest that the leader of a developing nation be deposed (as with Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi), because the Western world still views developing nations as client-states, subject to Western meddling and intervention. The same suggestion with respect to a developed nation is more likely to be viewed as unwarranted aggression, because first-world nations are considered to be fully and independently sovereign, as opposed to the dependent, partial sovereignty of client-states.

For better or worse, Russia is a first-world nation: one of the colonizers, not one of the colonized. Biden's statement would have been fine with respect to many other nations: North Korea, Syria, Argentina, Ghana, etc... The gaffe lies in treating the leader of a first-world nation with the same casual disrespect that is common in reference to third-world leaders.

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    The disrespect was casual? Have you reviewed the rest of the speech for which this is the ending? Seems serious, full-throated, considered and deliberate to me. And the reason it was walked back was its casualness? "Why is Biden's "(Putin) ...cannot remain in power" widely considered a gaffe to be walked back while previous US presidents have said similar?"
    – uhoh
    Apr 1, 2022 at 15:22
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    Argentina is as much one of the colonized as the US is; 85% of the population is considered White. We wouldn't say it of the leaders of Russia or China, because it could end in a very costly, possibly unwinnable war, and ultimately we have to work with them. We can say it about Saddam Hussein, because we could defeat or contain him. If Italy invaded Switzerland or Slovenia, we might say it about the leader of Italy.
    – prosfilaes
    Apr 1, 2022 at 16:59
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    @sumelic - exactly. The Czar has no diapers, not even a loincloth made out of bear skin. The USSR was a first-world nation. Russia in its current state, it is not. It might have a world-class intelligentsia and professional class, but it hasn't seen any economic growth in more than a decade, and all it has going for it are its nukes (not unlike Pakistan.) No disrespect intended, but Russia is not a near-peer of NATO, the EU, the US (or China or Japan, France, the UK or Germany for that matter.) And that's Putin's fault. Apr 1, 2022 at 18:53
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    Ugh... People are missing the point by griping about the details. I didn't really want to pull out Wallerstien's Core/Periphery theory (because it takes too much explaining to be useful), but please keep your eye on the ball. Russia is a fully industrialized nation that that has been considered part of the 'core' since WWII. Apr 1, 2022 at 19:02
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    I hate to say it Really? An excellent point nevertheless +1. Explicit regime change shocked Western opinion when the US first started using it openly but behind the scene regime nudging had long been practiced by Westerners in poorer parts of the world. It's just that "gentlemen don't do that to other gentlemen" was very much the norm post WW2 - no direct threats to governments in powerful Western nations. Russia is a bit of an outlier here, "recognizably Caucasian" in ethnicity, bit "alien" too - ex: Russian serfdom until 1917 was brutal. More cousins than brothers, in many ways. Apr 1, 2022 at 19:55
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It is considered a gaffe since the other members of the staff present in the speech, who didn't know about the remark and had to scramble to give an explanation.

So this situation, what does it mean? Do Biden's words imply a change in policy (official or unofficial), or is it personal sentiment? Was it an accidental quip?

But all of this implies that either the staff present didn't know (but in fact, may, and they are just acting) or that it was just an accident or spur of the moment by Biden's part.

People forget that in the geometries of warfare and conflict, there's such a thing as information warfare, and we, the public get caught up in it.

It is absolutely possible that Biden's staff didn't know about the comment a priori, but Biden did it on purpose to jolt them in a position that perhaps they did not support.

This is unlikely, but if you have work long enough looking at power plays and office politics, this is not a rarity.

It is possible that his staff knew about and are just putting up a show, to give an idea of Biden not controlling his words.

This creates an image (and message) of ambiguity, as in "what comes next?"

In the same way that Putin's regime used information warfare against us, so can the West. And we might just be seeing a glimpse of it.

We must understand that we, the individual we, are not the sole audience here. If this was intentional, it was clearly aimed at Putin's inner and outer circles, that his removal would be a welcomed, shared goal.

If so, the timing is almost perfect considering how Russia under Putin isn't a near-peer to the EU or the US or NATO, or even to individual powers like France, UK or Japan (which is insanely militarily capable despite its pacifism.)

I'll quote myself to separate this context from the greater context that I'm trying to convey in my post (and not collude to separate, but related topics.)

His regime has been undressed and revealed to be not a near-peer, but a decrepit, dilapidated agent of instability that just happens to have nukes, just a step above Pakistan (which at least doesn't go around with global adventurism.)

Take the nukes out, and Russia in its current state could not handle a conventional fight against France or Poland, let alone the full combined might of NATO or the USA by itself.

And at the end of the day, from the moral, global power and international order POVs, it's hard to see how Putin can remain in power, or return to the international community after assaulting a sovereign nation in a war the likes we have not seen in western Eurasia since WWII.

The dude is literally conducting a rape of Nanjing, a new rendition of Grozny or Aleppo across Ukraine's western flanks. The world never allowed Slobodan Milosevic or the architects of the Rwandan Genocide back into the international community. I can't see how the world can give that pass to Putin just because of its nukes.

So, Biden's gaffe, is it really a gaffe, or just a statement of fact (or purpose)?

Time and history will tell.

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    Comparison with the rape of Nanjing or Rwanda seems a bit overblown, but the rest is pretty reasonable. Apr 2, 2022 at 14:34
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    I've quoted you here.
    – uhoh
    Apr 2, 2022 at 21:37
  • @Fizz - look at the news coming out of Bucha and areas surrounding Kyiv. Yes, by the numbers, the comparisons are overblown, but (and I said this as someone who lived through two civil wars), that doesn't change how it feels for those Ukrainians at the receiving end. The numbers of documented atrocities are increasing by the minute. PS. I knew it was going to be bad, but I never expected this amoutn of atrocities tbh. Apr 3, 2022 at 18:50
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In CNN's April 2, 2022 news video Why many Russians are now rallying behind Putin’s invasion, NYT reports New York Times reporter Ivan Nechepurenko suggests a direct link1 between Biden's remarkable remark to a shift towards more support of the Kremlin and recent military activities in Ukraine.

From Anton Troianovski, Ivan Nechepurenko and Valeriya Safronova's April 1, 2022 piece in the New York times Shaken at First, Many Russians Now Rally Behind Putin's Invasion (notably in the CNN video Nechepurenko is reporting from Turkey):

The stream of antiwar letters to a St. Petersburg lawmaker has dried up. Some Russians who had criticized the Kremlin have turned into cheerleaders for the war. Those who publicly oppose it have found the word “traitor” scrawled on their apartment door.

Five weeks into President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there are signs that the Russian public’s initial shock has given way to a mix of support for their troops and anger at the West. On television, entertainment shows have been replaced by extra helpings of propaganda, resulting in an around-the-clock barrage of falsehoods about the “Nazis” who run Ukraine and American-funded Ukrainian bioweapons laboratories.

Polls and interviews show that many Russians now accept Mr. Putin’s contention that their country is under siege from the West and had no choice but to attack. The war’s opponents are leaving the country or keeping quiet.

CNN's Michael Smerconish cites the NYTimes article and asks Nechepurenko:

Smerconish: ...Are Biden's words now being used by Putin to bolster his own support at home?

Nechepurenko: Of course! Everything that is being said or done by the west against Russia now is being used by Putin and his very effective machine of propaganda, which is not a Soviet machine of propaganda, it's like CNN - a "pro-Putin CNN" essentially. The government spends millions and millions of dollars on state run TV channels.

So they use whatever is being said [...] Everything is being portrayed as a western war against Russia, so it's not Russia that's waging war in Ukraine but the west is waging war against Russia and Russia had to kind-of respond to it, and Ukraine is just a battle field for this grand war, and Russia is being attacked.

It just feeds well into... and now we see that the Russians were again prepared for the current situation, the current war...

While some in the media have proposed that Biden's line was aimed more at the Russian people or telegraphing something to the political elite there or those within Putin's inner circle, it seems that the Kremlin has found this line very helpful to rally support among the Russian people, which if anything contributes toward Putin's hold on power and likely voting patterns in the 2024 Russian presidential election.

In this sense it can be seen as a Gaffe.

That does not mean that it also had positive and potentially intended effects, but I have not asked about those in this question as answers are not likely supportable with facts at the present time.

Nechepurenko goes on to address how the situation will continue to evolve as effects of the sanctions are increasingly felt by the population, "Well, you have to think in stages..." and that can potentially be the basis of a future question.

To quote @luis.espinal's thoughtful answer:

So, Biden's gaffe, is it really a gaffe, or just a statement of fact (or purpose)?

Time and history will tell.


1Though not necessarily a one-to-one cause and effect; Nechepurenko certainly points how ways that the Kremlin is working hard to shape public opinion as well.

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