Analysis: Biden’s use of Marines during Philadelphia speech adds to debate over politicization of military

For most Americans watching the speech in prime time, the uniformed Marines accompanying him were only part of the speech’s backdrop.

Yet to others who are connected to the military or who follow the politicization of the armed forces with concern, it has raised questions about why the White House would undermine its message about the need to protect democracy and respect its institutions by posting soldiers behind the president. while giving a political speech.

“Whatever you think of this speech, the military is supposed to be apolitical. Positioning uniformed Marines behind President Biden for a political speech goes against that. It’s wrong when Democrats do it. It’s wrong.” is wrong when Republicans do it.”

This tweet has been rationed. The online tsunami of opposition included veterans who disagreed, but also White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain retweeting a thread from a liberal blogger who called me a propagandist; commentator Keith Olbermann saying I should be fired; and an account that tweeted pictures of my husband in his army uniform with our kids, wondering if he even owns a suit (he does, but I think it would be nice too if he didn’t not). Several members of the White House press staff pushed back against characterizing the speech as political.

Some veterans – including liberals – disagree on optics

In the minority were notable voices, who were concerned about the visuals of the Marines even as they agreed with the substance of Biden’s speech. They included Allison Jaslow, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the electoral arm of House Democrats. She is also a veteran who has completed two tours in Iraq.

“I think it’s very clear that a political message was conveyed through this event,” she said on CNN the next morning. “I agree with the president’s message, and I’m glad he phrased it that way. That’s not to say that they chose, you know, a window decoration for their event that included Marines in it.”
Paul Rieckhoff, a self-proclaimed independent who founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and is now a veterans advocate, said on Twitter that “it’s just sloppy. A lot of people in the White House know better. Or should. Either way, there’s just no need to even have it as a concern. It just shouldn’t not be made in America.”

“Beyond the Marines part, it was a very powerful and important speech,” Rieckhoff continued. “Late in many ways.”

Veterans are certainly not monolithic in this opinion.

“This silly criticism of @POTUS by media elites is nonsense,” tweeted Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified before Congress ahead of Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. “They take umbrage at the use of the military as a prop, completely missing the content of its message… THE NATION IS IN DANGER! The MAGA (sic) fascists are trying to end our democracy. Get a hint and a certain perspective.”

The White House expected Republicans to pounce on the speech, but it didn’t seem to be expecting a backlash for the optics of the address from other quarters: reporters who highlighted the breakdown of ‘a standard or even critiques of optics which otherwise embraced the substance of speech.

On Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded to the criticism and brushed it off, explaining why the Marines were featured during the speech.

It “was intended to demonstrate the deep and abiding respect the President has for these services – the military, for these ideals and the unique role that our independent military plays in defending our democracy, regardless of the party in power”, she said. “It’s not abnormal. It’s actually normal for presidents on either side of the aisle to give speeches to members of the military, including President…Ronald Reagan and President George HW Bush. It is not an unusual sight or an unusual event that has occurred.”

Past presidents, Democrats and Republicans, have politicized the military and have been criticized for it, but not all speeches and events where the military is present are equal in this debate.

There are countless examples of presidents giving speeches or standing before military personnel who, in the opinion of many who challenge the optics of the Philadelphia event, do not violate the standards they committed: with President Barack Obama announcing a pivot in the War on Terror at West Point in 2014, President George W. Bush has delivered numerous military policy speeches at military bases in the United States and abroad, for example.

These speeches were about military policy. And Thursday’s speech did not include any announcements related to the military or new policies.

“Stand to a much higher standard”

Trump is in a league of his own among modern presidents when it comes to politicizing the military, including in political speeches and at events.

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The uniformed Marines notably appeared in a Republican National Committee video filmed at the White House for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

Rieckhof was critical then toosaying, “Using the Marines in this segment is just the latest example of Trump shamelessly and damagingly politicizing our military. They’re just political props for him.”
In 2019, Trump attacked a group of then freshman Democratic female lawmakers of color, known as the “squad,” at an event on the White House South Lawn flanked by Marines. He appeared to target Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Somali American who came to the United States as a refugee, when he said, “If you’re not happy here, then you can leave.”

The loudest Republican criticism of the Marines in uniform appearing in the background of Biden’s speech highlights a double standard that many in the GOP have for Trump and Biden.

They berate Biden for a relatively minor transgression from what they ignored during the Trump years, including the June 2020 appearance of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley in Lafayette Square after federal officials forcibly cleared a street of peaceful protesters so Trump could have a photo op outside a church.

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Milley later apologized for his role that day, and we recently learned he penned a scathing resignation letter at the time, though he ultimately didn’t quit.

“I am convinced that you have done great and irreparable harm to my country. I believe that you have made a concerted effort over time to politicize the United States military,” he wrote then, according to “The Divider: Trump in the White”. House, 2017-2021,” a book by CNN contributors Susan Glasser and Peter Baker.

Democrats have strongly criticized Trump and his administration for their actions.

That’s why Jaslow thinks Democrats shouldn’t dismiss optical concerns with Biden’s speech.

“You can’t criticize a previous administration and not hold yourself to a much higher standard,” she said. “Some people might see this as a small bullet, but it’s really important. And if you don’t want so-called MAGA Republicans or any other Republicans to politicize the military, which many administrations have done, then you should’ don’t do it yourself.”

Biden knows it. After all, he set the standard for himself.

Shortly after entering the White House in February 2021, he visited the Pentagon to reorient the workforce following the Trump administration.

“You are incredible heroes and incredible patriots,” he told them. “I will never, ever dishonor you. I will never disrespect you. I will never politicize the work you do.”

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that Paul Rieckhoff is a self-declared independent.


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