So much for "strategic ambiguity," the United States' longtime strategy of not really confirming one way or another whether it would defend Taiwan from an attack by China. Under questioning by Anderson Cooper at a CNN town hall Thursday night, President Biden said pretty definitively the U.S. would come to Taiwan's aid. "Yes," he said, "we have a commitment to do that."
The problem? Turns out the president's comments weren't actually definitive. The White House immediately began to walk back the statement, though not in time to satisfy Chinese officials. (China considers Taiwan a breakaway province.) It was the second time in recent months Biden said America would defend Taiwan — and the second time his aides had to tell reporters that, despite the president's words, U.S. policy on the issue has not changed.
Biden's stumble came amidst some grumbling in the media about his unwillingness to sit for interviews. Politico pointed out this week that Biden has yet to submit to questioning with reporters from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Associated Press, or Reuters. By one count, he's done just 10 one-on-one interviews since his inauguration — former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had done 131 and 57, respectively, at this point in their presidencies.
Thursday's incident may be a sign it's wise for this administration to continue to keep the boss mostly under wraps. As a senator and vice president, Biden had a reputation for being notoriously gaffe-prone when speaking off the cuff. Sometimes — as when he proclaimed in a hot-mic moment that the Affordable Care Act to be a "big f--king deal" — the habit could be charming. Other times, it was consequential, as when he accidentally prodded Obama in 2012 to suddenly declare support for gay marriage.
But a president has less wiggle room than a senator or even a veep. His words can move markets, put a thumb on the scales of justice, or (as we're being reminded today) raise international tensions.
After four years in which Trump broadcast every stray thought into the world without regard for the consequences — or with deliberate intent to make trouble — it was easy to keep Biden away from the press and declare it a virtue. Now it looks like a necessity. Generally, the health of democracy requires presidents to take questions from the press and public. Biden might be the exception.