During President Joe Biden’s speech on Monday afternoon, he defended his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, adding that he was well aware he would be “criticized” for the move.
“I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to a future president,” Biden said.
His move wasn’t the only thing that was criticized. Industry pros harshly judged the way he communicated the decision on Monday.
From a communications perspective, the Administration had their Secretary of State on three Sunday shows, the National Security Advisor on all three network morning shows Monday morning and Biden himself addressing the nation Monday afternoon, noted TJ Ducklo, an SVP at Risa Heller Communications
“[They all] clearly explained the tough choices this White House had to make and why,” said Ducklo. “Despite that, you're still seeing coverage that allows bad faith, hypocritical, sanctimonious Republican talking points to drive a conversation around the president's response. This is a deeply complex, decades-old issue that deserves thoughtful and serious coverage, and I hope we see more of that in the coming days and weeks.”
Analyzing Biden’s press conference, Ross Wallenstein, founder and CEO of Wall to Wall Communications, told PRWeek that he thought it was “good” but also “too little, too late” in the midst of a full Taliban takeover, which began in earnest last week.
“While a public statement from the commander in chief would have been better a few days ago, the process has been in motion for months and no amount of explaining to a very divided electorate would have done much good,” said Wallenstein.
Here’s how other government comms pros and journalists reacted to the speech on Twitter…
As a former presidential speechwriter I was shocked by the utter lack of empathy. No acknowledgement of the heart wrenching scenes we see playing out or the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. https://t.co/bLQgAr6D4h— Marc Thiessen (@marcthiessen) August 16, 2021
Speaking directly, frankly and without mincing words, Biden outlines his rationale in Afghanistan. In his phrasings, there's a lot of room for interpretation. Final judgement will lie in what's achieved not what was said. With that in mind, what did you think of what you heard?— Dan Rather (@DanRather) August 16, 2021
Whether you like it or not, President Biden’s strong speech was in line with where the majority of the American people are.— Jonathan Capehart (@CapehartJ) August 16, 2021
.@POTUS made a compelling case for WHY we are leaving Afghanistan that will resonate with many.— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) August 16, 2021
He didn’t do as well taking responsibility for HOW we got out, and the obvious failure to anticipate events.
Biden has painted this as a binary - stay or go - while only briefly addressing the fact that the images coming out of Kabul reflect people who weren't evacuated months earlier.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) August 16, 2021
It's amazing that in a speech yesterday where Biden did not once condemn the Taliban, he chose to blame the Afghan people, military, and government eight different times pic.twitter.com/sBDzfexBld— Zach Parkinson (@AZachParkinson) August 17, 2021
Wow. Biden is completely passing the buck here. Taking zero responsibility. He is casting blame on Trump—and on Afghanistan forces... everybody but himself!— Matt Lewis (@mattklewis) August 16, 2021
If today’s speech from Biden sounded familiar, it’s because it was largely lifted from his speech in April announcing the drawdown.— Drew Holden (@DrewHolden360) August 17, 2021
One line that didn’t make it in this time? The Afghan military will “continue to fight valiantly…at great cost.” pic.twitter.com/8z6V1q4Jd2
Fox News has Bush's press secretary AND Trump's press secretary AND Trump's daughter-in-law on the payroll to explain that what is happening in Afghanistan is 100% Biden's fault. pic.twitter.com/KDmGRtuyjF— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) August 16, 2021
Before the speech: Comms pros wondered why the White House was being so quiet
Before Biden’s speech on Monday afternoon, he faced criticism for his silence as the Taliban seized control of much of Afghanistan. Some comms pros tweeted that his statement on the matter was too delayed, with others bringing up how shocked they were that Biden and White House press secretary Jen Psaki still appeared to be on vacation as the chaos erupted.
Hopefully this happens very soon. Imperative for the President to speak to the nation and the world. He must lay out again the reasoning behind his decisions, how he sees the future of this region & what must be done to prevent another safe haven for al-Qaeda to plan attacks. https://t.co/N6C2ojVsAW— Robert Gibbs (@Robt_Gibbs) August 16, 2021
Too little too late after 6 DAYS of deafening silence on this. There is nothing you can say at this point… https://t.co/wSaIk0bmAB— Kayleigh McEnany (@kayleighmcenany) August 16, 2021
Biden will address the country today, as Afghans clinging to US planes fall to their deaths in Kabul. Hard to script a worse propaganda victory for our enemies as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11. There is nothing Biden can say now to right the wrong of his failed policy.— Sarah Huckabee Sanders (@SarahHuckabee) August 16, 2021
This is unacceptable. When I was DOD Press Secretary & White House communications Director I got called back to the White House from vacations - that’s the job. You are a commissioned officer of the President - because you are never off the clock. https://t.co/vHwmIgEsRN— Alyssa Farah (@Alyssafarah) August 16, 2021
People around the world will be studying the video of President Biden’s scripted remarks this afternoon to evaluate a core national security question: is the United States currently led by an incompetent, or someone suffering from diminished capacity?— Stephen Miller (@StephenM) August 16, 2021
When I worked in the White House, everyone knew that personal plans and days off were tentative because the job could call at any moment. The job is calling.— Rory Cooper (@rorycooper) August 16, 2021
The United States has a moral obligation to evacuate as many Afghan allies as possible.— Steve Schmidt (@SteveSchmidtSES) August 15, 2021
Eric Hollister Williams, a former managing principal at Precision Strategies, said before Biden spoke that his speech would likely be one of the hardest speeches he gives during his presidency.
“The President needs to offer a healthy dose of reality that our exit from Afghanistan always had the potential of things falling apart, that the situation at present is dire, but that it was and is time to bring our troops home and end America’s longest war,” Hollister Williams said.
He added that Biden needs to speak directly to the American people and reassure them that a war started under another president two decades ago was not a complete failure. Additionally, Biden needed to address what steps are being taken to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist training ground.
Matt Terrill, a partner at Firehouse Strategies, said that the “pictures of defeat” over the weekend were the exact narrative the Biden Administration wanted to steer away from.
“What Americans look for from their leaders in moments of crisis or moments of challenge is not silence – but leaders who step up, speak out and present a clear and confident vision and plan for successfully moving forward that Americans can unite and rally behind,” Terrill told PRWeek.
While speaking out and addressing the nation matters, Americans need to believe their leaders hold credibility on the issues they are speaking out on – and for many people watching what occurred over the weekend in Afghanistan, they are questioning the Administration's credibility and ability to lead at this moment, Terrill added.
Chris Durlak, a partner at Purple Strategies, told PRWeek that to regain the upper hand, Biden needs to ignore the DC blame game. Durlak advised that Biden resist the “easy temptation” to continue to make this about decisions by former Presidents Donald Trump and George W. Bush.
“Plenty of people will carry that message for him,” said Durlak. “He needs to take full responsibility for what’s happened, acknowledge not everything went right and then turn the focus on where we go from here. Keep the focus on the future and don’t get drawn into relitigating past decisions. That’s what voters care about.”
What Biden needs to communicate now is a bold proposal, such as announcing a major increase in the number of Afghan refugees we’ll accept into the U.S.
“[That would] get people to stop arguing about what went wrong with the withdrawal and instead get them arguing about Biden’s proposed path forward,” said Durlak.