'Details Are Irrelevant': Biden Says Verbal Slip-Ups Don't Undermine His Judgment

Sep 3, 2019

Joe Biden wants voters to look at the big picture.

His campaign is focused on a mission to "restore the soul of this nation."

That's also why the former vice president does not think anyone should get bogged down in the small details he mixes up on the campaign trail.

"That has nothing to do with judgment of whether or not you send troops to war, the judgment of whether you bring someone home, the judgment of whether you decide on a healthcare policy," Biden told the NPR Politics Podcast and Iowa Public Radio in a wide-ranging interview.

Biden is prone to flubs and gaffes, and has been for years. Most recently, the Washington Post reported that a dramatic story he told about the war in Afghanistan conflated and confused facts from multiple different incidents.

Biden has said that he was not intentionally trying to mislead anyone with that story, and he argues that kind of mistake has nothing to do with his ability to serve as president.

"The details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making," Biden told NPR.

What a Biden presidency would look like

On the campaign trail, Biden often touts his relationship with former President Barack Obama, telling voters, particularly African-Americans, about his "buddy Barack."

Biden's agenda also builds on the Obama administration; he is arguing for an expansion of the Affordable Care Act, rather than a "Medicare For All" system advocated by some of his rivals.

Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns with voters Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, during the Hawkeye Area Labor Council Labor Day Picnic at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids.
Credit Scott Morgan for NPR

But if voters wanted a third term of the Obama administration, would they not have chosen Hillary Clinton in 2016? Biden disagreed with that assessment.

"I campaigned like the devil for Hillary, but Hillary had different positions than the president had, and she emphasized different aspects of what would have occurred had I been the nominee," said Biden. "That doesn't mean I would've won. I don't mean that."

And he says this is a very different campaign because of Trump.

"We weren't facing anything that we're facing today with this president three years ago," said Biden. "The next president is going to have to be able to pull the world back together. Not a joke. Literally, not figuratively, pull the world back together, reunite our allies ... Four more years of this president, there will be no NATO."

Resetting U.S. trade policy and addressing climate change are key priorities for Biden, and an opportunity for distinction from Obama.

"The idea that we would have another trade agreement without environmentalists and labor sitting at the negotiating table with us will not happen in a Biden administration," he said.

Biden has said, if elected, he would renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rather than fully supporting the initial plan as proposed. As Vice President, he had been a vocal supporter of the original TPP agreement.

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks to voters as he campaigns Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, during the Hawkeye Area Labor Council Labor Day Picnic at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids.
Credit Scott Morgan for NPR

Foreign policy decisions

The 76-year-old former vice president and longtime Delaware senator defended his broader record on foreign policy, pointing out that he has more experience than all of his opponents combined.

With that long record, Biden has faced criticism over the years for his judgment on key foreign policy decisions, such as voting to authorize the Iraq War, trying to partition the country along ethnic and sectarian lines, opposing a troop surge, and overseeing the withdrawal in 2011 that some say created a power vacuum that allowed ISIS to flourish in Iraq.

"He's been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," former defense secretary Robert Gates wrote in his 2014 memoir.

"I think my record has been good," Biden told NPR. He explained that his rationale in authorizing the use of military force in Iraq in 2002 was based on a commitment he had received from then-President George W. Bush that he would not go to war in Iraq.

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks to media as he campaigns Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, during the Hawkeye Area Labor Council Labor Day Picnic at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids.
Credit Scott Morgan for NPR

"[Bush] looked me in the eye in the Oval Office. He said he needed the vote to be able to get inspectors into Iraq to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein was engaged in dealing with a nuclear program," said Biden. "He got them in and before you know it, we had 'shock and awe.'"

Bush's office denied Biden's version of events. "I'm sure it's just an innocent mistake of memory, but this recollection is flat wrong," said spokesman Freddy Ford in an email to NPR.

The Biden campaign pointed to numerous remarks from Bush at the time where he said he hoped to go through the U.N. Security Council to avoid a military conflict with Iraq.

"Immediately, that moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment," Biden told NPR.

But in multiple public remarks made after the invasion began in 2003, Biden openly supported the effort. Biden publicly said his vote was a mistake as early as 2005, but not immediately when the war began in 2003.

"Nine months ago, I voted with my colleagues to give the president of the United States of America the authority to use force, and I would vote that way again today," Biden said in a speech at the Brookings Institution on July 31, 2003. "It was a right vote then, and it'll be a correct vote today."

A former senior policy adviser to Biden clarified that the he was highly critical of the Bush administration's strategy and intelligence failures from the outset, but once the U.S. military was deployed, Biden supported resources for the troops.

Biden is also clear now that he thinks his vote was a mistake.

Former Vice President Joe Biden serves ice cream as he campaigns Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, during the Hawkeye Area Labor Council Labor Day Picnic at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids.
Credit Scott Morgan for NPR