For most Americans watching the prime-time speech, the uniformed Marines flanking him were just part of the setting for the address.
Yet to others who are connected to the military or follow the politicization of the armed forces with concern, it raised questions about why the White House would undercut its message about the need to protect democracy and to respect its institutions by posting service members behind the President. as he delivered a political speech.
“Whatever you think of this speech the military is supposed to be apolitical. Positioning Marines in uniform behind President Biden for a political speech flies in the face of that. It’s wrong when Democrats do it. It’s wrong when Republicans do it.”
Some veterans — including liberal ones — disagree on the optics
In the minority were some noteworthy voices, who were concerned about the visual 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 election arm of House Democrats. She is also a combat veteran who served two tours in Iraq.
“Beyond the Marines part, it was a very powerful and important speech,” Rieckhoff continued. “Overdue in many ways.”
Veterans are certainly not monolithic in that opinion.
The White House expected Republicans to pounce on the speech, but it did not appear to anticipate blowback for the optics of the address from other quarters: journalists who highlighted the breaking of a norm or even critics of the optics who otherwise embraced the substance of the speech
On Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded to the criticism and brushed it off, explaining why Marines were featured during the address.
It “was intended to demonstrate the deep and abiding respect the President has for these services — service members, to these ideals and the unique role our independent military plays in defending our democracy, no matter which party is in power,” she said. “It is not abnormal. It is actually normal for presidents from either side of the aisle to give speeches in front of members of the military, including President … Ronald Reagan and President George HW Bush. It is not an unusual sight or is not an unusual event to have happened.”
Past presidents, Democratic and Republican, have politicized the military, and faced criticism 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 to or standing in front of service members that do not, in the view of many who take issue with the optics of the Philadelphia event, violate the norms it did: President Barack Obama announcing a pivot in the war on terror at West Point in 2014, President George W. Bush gave many military policy addresses at military bases in the US and overseas, for instance.
Those speeches were about military policy. And Thursday’s speech did not include any announcements related to the military or new policies.
‘Hold yourself to a much higher standard’
Trump is in a league of his own among modern-day presidents when it comes to politicizing the military, including in political speeches and at events.
Uniformed Marines notably appeared in a Republican National Committee video filmed at the White House for Trump’s reelection bid in 2020.
The loudest Republican criticism of uniformed Marines appearing in the background of Biden’s speech highlights a double standard many in the GOP have for Trump and Biden.
They admonish Biden for a transgression that was relatively minor compared with what they had ignored during the Trump years, including the June 2020 appearance of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in Lafayette Square after federal officials forcibly cleared a street of peaceful protesters so that Trump could have a photo op in front of a church.
“It is my belief that you were doing 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 News84Media contributor Susan Glasser and Peter Baker.
Democrats were highly critical of Trump and his administration for their actions.
That’s why Jaslow believes Democrats shouldn’t dismiss the optics concerns with Biden’s speech.
“You can’t criticize a prior administration and not also hold yourself to a much higher standard,” she said. “Some people might see this as like small ball, but it really is important. And if you don’t want the so-called MAGA Republicans or any Republicans to be politicizing the military, of which many administrations have done, then you shouldn’t” “Don’t do it yourself.”
Biden knows this. After all, he set the standard for himself.
Shortly after he entered the White House in February 2021, he made a visit to the Pentagon to reorient the workforce following the Trump administration.
“You’re 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-described independent.