President Biden sparked debate about his own adherence to political norms during his speech last week warning of GOP attacks on democracy, when the White House placed two Marines in the backdrop of his high-profile address from Philadelphia.
It wasn’t the first time a president has given a speech in front of the military. But as the nation becomes more polarized, even those who think Biden’s imagery was not particularly political say it was bad optics.
“This is — to take sort of a football analogy — this is a 5-yard penalty. Definitely not a 10- or 15-yard penalty or loss of downs,” said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.
During his speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Sept. 1, Biden warned that former President Trump and other so-called MAGA Republicans represent a threat to the country.
The White House insisted that the speech was an official address and not a political one, but Biden invoked his predecessor by name — something he does not often do — and urged Americans to “vote, vote, vote!”
The speech elicited praise from the left and backlash from Republicans. But some common ground emerged over two Marines positioned behind him during the speech.
Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. Army Europe from 2011 to 2012, said on Twitter that he thought Biden’s speech was “ well delivered” and “definitely needed at this time in our history.” However, he said the military shouldn’t have been in the background.
“Why is that my opinion? For the same reason I believe: the military shouldn’t attend political events in uniform; people running for office shouldn’t wear uniforms in ads/tout their veteran status in their campaigns; active duty personnel shouldn’t publicly support candidates,” he added.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, similarly praised Biden’s speech as “very powerful and important,” adding that it was “overdue in many ways.”
However, he said that if the presence of the Marines was not intentional, then it was “just sloppy.”
“Plenty of people in the White House know better. Or should. Either way, there’s just no need to have it even as a concern. It just shouldn’t be done in America,” Rieckhoff tweeted.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the presence of the Marines during the speech.
“The presence of the Marines was intended to demonstrate the deep and abiding respect the president has for these service members, to these ideals and the unique role our independent military plays in defending our democracy, no matter which party is in power,” Jean-Pierre said during a briefing Friday.
“And 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,” she added. “It is not an unusual sight or is not an unusual event to have happen.”
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder didn’t answer a question on the Marines during a Tuesday briefing, instead referring to Jean-Pierre’s comments.
The Department of Defense’s long-standing policy is that active-duty service members can carry out the obligations of citizenship but will not “engage in partisan political activities.”
Furthermore, active-duty personnel are to “avoid the interference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause.”
But the two Marines standing behind Biden during his speech were following orders, so they themselves didn’t do anything wrong, experts said.
“It certainly breaks with the norms of civil-military relations, and it puts the Marines in a tough situation,” said Katherine Kuzminski, a senior fellow and program director for Military, Veterans and Society at the Center for a New American Security.
“Any service member who is asked to do something by the commander in chief is going to follow through on that — that is the bedrock of our expectations of the military. But it added a military flavor to the events in a way that didn’t need to happen and that broke with the civil-military norms,” she continued.
Recent presidents from George W. Bush to Barack Obama have drawn criticism for using the military as a political backdrop.
Feaver pointed out that the most obvious comparison made on Twitter was a speech Bush gave in 2003 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare the end of major operations in Iraq — commonly referred to as “Mission Accomplished.”
“That was a speech that the Democrats in particular did not like, and there there was some element, perhaps, of politicization,” Feaver said. “But what he was doing was praising the sailors who had worked on that mission, so it was a little bit closer to legitimate than using the merely as wallpaper, which is what happened on Thursday night.”
Kuzminski pointed out that Obama announced a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to an audience of cadets at West Point Military Academy in 2009.
“They were in the audience, they weren’t standing behind the president, and they were the people who are going to be most directly affected by the policy. So while the president was making a broad political statement about military policies to the country, he’s also directing his comments to the individuals who would be most affected,” she said.
However, concern of politicization of the military rose to a fever pitch during Trump’s time in office, particularly after he threatened to use the military to quell demonstrators in summer 2020.
Trump’s rhetoric prompted tensions with military leaders, with his former Defense Secretary James Mattis offering stunning public criticism in a statement to The Atlantic.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley apologized in June of that year after he appeared alongside Trump in a photo taken outside of St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square after federal authorities attacked peaceful protesters.
Early on in his term, Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring entry of immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries during a ceremony at the Pentagon.
“I think that most scholars would agree that some of the violations there were above and beyond what we’ve normally seen with many presidents in terms of violating democratic norms of civil-military relations,” said Risa Brooks, a Marquette University political science professor who specializes in civil-military relations, of the Trump administration.
The increasing polarization across U.S. society has exacerbated those concerns over threats to civilian-military norms. It’s something that eight former secretaries of Defense and five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged in an open letter published in War on the Rocks.
Their letter noted that civilian control of the military is exercised by all three branches of government and that the members of the military “swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an oath of fealty to an individual or to an office.”
“Members of the military accept limits on the public expression of their private views — limits that would be unconstitutional if imposed on other citizens. Military and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity,” they wrote.
Kuzminski of the Center for a New American Security said future presidents would be well advised to take those warnings to heart.
“In the future, I think any president would — it would behoove any president to keep the military out of political speeches or political events and not put them in that position in the first place,” she said.
Morgan Chalfant contributed.