President Joe Biden has long been a self-confessed “gaffe machine,” and when he makes even the most minor regrettable statement his critics typically pounce. It was therefore not surprising that there was a quicker-than-usual reaction on social media to his seemingly off-script remarks made at the League of Conservation Voters Annual Capital Dinner on Wednesday.
According to the official White House transcript, President Biden remarked, “We have plans to build a railroad from the Pacific all the way across the Indian Ocean. We have plans to build in—in Angola one of the largest solar plants in the world. I can go on, but I’m not. I’m going off-script. I’m going to get in trouble.”
A video clip of the remarks was shared on Twitter, quickly going viral and being seen more than two million times since it was posted. It also received a torrent of responses from a number of high-profile critics of the president.
“It has become commonplace for social media users to call out notable individuals when they stumble, either in words or actions,” said Jason Mollica, professorial lecturer and program director in the School of Communication at American University.
“President Biden’s statements are just the latest instance,” added Mollica. “In politics, both sides seize on the opportunity to attack and slander the opposite party. Social media can be good for accountability and correcting misinformation. In this case, it’s not accountability; it’s a way to trend and gain popularity.”
Presidential Gaffes: A Short History
Biden is hardly alone in saying the wrong thing, especially when he goes off script. There have been countless times that former presidents said things they almost certainly wished they could take back.
President Richard Nixon’s now infamous line, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” is just one example of highly questionable statements, while no doubt his successor Gerald Ford likely regretted stating, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” That latter quip, which was made during a presidential debate with then-candidate Jimmy Carter, essentially destroyed Ford’s credibility in foreign affairs, and it most certainly contributed to his loss in the 1976 election.
Though it wasn’t technically a gaffe, President Ronald Reagan also made a questionable joke during a microphone sound check stating, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Of course, President Donald Trump has also been shown to be quite a gaffe machine as well, making a number of notable statements over the years. Among others, he infamously proclaimed, “It has not been easy for me… my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars;” and another time stated “I watched our police and our firemen down at 7/11—down at the World Trade Center right after it came down,” when he obviously meant 9/11.
We remember many of these statements as part of the historic record, but most of these were quickly old news if they were ever really news at all. Today, any gaffe made by lawmakers is likely to set social media on fire!
Gaffes Aren’t New—We Just Cover Them More
It is hard to know what verbal gaffes earlier presidents made, simply because there were no recordings of their speeches—except what was literally written down. Yet, it is clear from the presidential records that mistakes were made, and some former leaders were noted to be better speakers than others.
Presidents William Henry Harrison and James Buchanan are now remembered for having two of the worst inaugural addresses in our nation’s history. Neither was exactly known to be great orators, but then again, any opinion is only based on written reports from the day, and those were from a media that could have shown bias. Moreover, it is almost impossible to know what the masses actually thought.
Likewise, only a small portion of President Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches were likely recorded. Currently just over 300 speeches and utterances have been digitized and preserved in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. By contrast, there are perhaps thousands of clips and sound bites of our more modern presidents available on social media.
What is also different today is how much easier it is to comment on every statement by our leaders for every word they said.
No one would suggest President Ford or Carter were the greatest of speakers, but neither received the criticism that George W. Bush faced just decades later as readers could comment to online news reports. Bush was arguably the first president to face a backlash on social media, something that has now become the norm. When Ford or Carter said something, it was often only picked up on the evening news. There was no social media that enabled our immediate response.
In other words, had George W. Bush, Donald Trump or Joe Biden been around before social media, their gaffes might have gone largely unnoticed—and likewise, had social media existed during the administrations of President Abraham Lincoln and FDR, they might have faced greater ridicule from their critics, but also from the masses.
This ability to respond to the gaffes of our leaders is simply an unfortunate sign of the times suggested Susan Campbell, distinguished lecturer in the Department of Communication, Film and Media Studies at the University of New Haven.
“I understand jumping on what people perceive as a weakness on the part of a political opponent but equating a gaffe such as this with a diminution of someone’s mental capacity is really reaching. Are there other things better talked about? I believe there are,” Campbell explained.
“Focusing on this kind of statement really is the kind of thing that keeps the outrage machine spewing smoke and nonsense,” she added. “Is this news that requires our attention? I don’t think so, but it’s a way to chip away at a political opponent, and people who aren’t skilled news consumers are not necessarily going to ask for deep coverage of deeper issues.”