Biden called Japan, India 'xenophobic'; Trump mixes up leaders: Do candidate gaffes matter?


WASHINGTON − At a campaign fundraiser organized and attended largely by Asian American donors and lawmakers on Wednesday, President Joe Biden described three Asian countries, including U.S. ally Japan and an emerging partner, India, as “xenophobic.”

Biden, who was crediting immigrants with fueling the American economy, went on to attribute “xenophobia” as a reason the economies of Russia, China, Japan and India were struggling.

Except: India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, whose gross domestic product grew at 8.4% in the final three months of 2023.

President Biden welcomes Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Mrs. Kishida Yuko of Japan to the White House in Washington on Apr 10, 2024.President Biden welcomes Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Mrs. Kishida Yuko of Japan to the White House in Washington on Apr 10, 2024.

President Biden welcomes Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Mrs. Kishida Yuko of Japan to the White House in Washington on Apr 10, 2024.

Biden, who has called himself a “gaffe-machine,” was making a point about “freedom, America and democracy.”

“You know, one of the reasons why our economy is growing is because of you and many others. Why? Because we welcome immigrants,” he said. “We look to — the reason — look, think about it. Why is China stalling so badly economically? Why is Japan having trouble? Why is Russia? Why is India? Because they’re xenophobic.”

He added: “They don’t want immigrants. Immigrants are what makes us strong.”

Biden is hardly the first politician to make a gaffe.

During a summitt in Washington, D.C., last year, former President Donald Trump claimed Biden would “plunge the world into World War II” and confused Biden with Barack Obama, bragging to the audience that he was leading Obama in 2024 election polls.

Trump has called Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the leader of Turkey and confused his United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, a GOP rival, with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Donald Trump attends a "Get Out The Vote" rally at Withrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., on Feb. 23, 2024.Donald Trump attends a "Get Out The Vote" rally at Withrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., on Feb. 23, 2024.

Donald Trump attends a “Get Out The Vote” rally at Withrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., on Feb. 23, 2024.

“You know, by the way, they never report the crowd on Jan. 6,” Trump said, veering into the 2021 Capitol riot at a rally before this year’s New Hampshire primary. “You know, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley…Nikki Haley was in charge of security. We offered her 10,000 people, soldiers, National Guards, whatever they want. They turned it down.”

Trump still romped to victory over Haley in the primaries.

While the press and social media pounce on candidate gaffes, do they influence the course of a campaign? Do candidate gaffes even matter?

In the age of Trump, voters have become inured to heated rhetoric and rhetorical fumbles that would have been considered remarkable a generation ago, said William F. B. O’ Reilly, a Republican strategist.

More: ‘Permanently barred?’ Not! Donald Trump reaches out to wealthy Nikki Haley donors

“Voters are much more inclined to see the bigger picture now, and to dismiss day-to-day mistakes,” he said. “Besides, the overwhelming majority of voters already know who they’re voting for, and almost nothing will change their minds. Think Trump postulating about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue: Turned out he was right.”

Trump famously told an Iowa audience in January 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”

Wild, or wildly wrong, statements aren’t exclusive to Biden and his billionaire nemesis.

Former President George W. Bush once condemned the “unjustified and brutal” invasion of Iraq when he meant Ukraine. (Bush is the one who invaded Iraq, in 2003.) In fact, there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to “Bushisms”— a repository of his linguistic stumbles.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, left, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, and U.S. President Joe Biden attend Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment event on the day of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, Sept. 9, 2023.Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, left, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, and U.S. President Joe Biden attend Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment event on the day of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, Sept. 9, 2023.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, left, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, and U.S. President Joe Biden attend Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment event on the day of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, Sept. 9, 2023.

The age factor

Gaffes matter to the extent that they reinforce a candidates’ weakness, said Melissa DeRosa, a Democratic strategist.

“Trump misspeaks just as much as Biden does but, because of the vulnerabilities around the perception of Biden’s age, it hurts him more when he misspeaks because it − fairly or unfairly − re-enforces a negative that resonates with the public.”

According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted in February, 86% of Americans think Biden, 81, is too old to serve another term as president, while 62% think Trump, 77, is too old. The poll was conducted after allegations in Special Counsel Robert Hur called Biden “an elderly man with a poor memory,” and suggests that age will continue to be a factor in the 2024 election.

More: How old is Trump? Here’s how old the former president will be on Election Day 2024.

More: How old will Joe Biden be if re-elected as president in 2024? This one chart breaks it down.

Voters forgive, forget, ignore

While Biden might have been off to a rocky start to mark Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander heritage month, which is observed in May, for most attendees at the event this week the comment barely registered, said Shekar Narasimhan, an organizer of the private fundraiser.

“The way I heard him was contextually. He was drawing a contrast to Donald Trump, who wants to deport many millions including AAPIs, to say, ‘look what happens when you’re xenophobic,’” said Narasimhan, an Indian immigrant and founder of AAPI Victory Fund, a political action committee.

Biden “was drawing a contrast with other countries who have more closed immigration systems,” he said. “We didn’t hear from any Japanese Americans, or for that matter, Indian Americans who were like, ‘Oh, what the hell did he say there?'”

On lumping India with other economies, he said he didn’t “understand the comment.”

More: Why does Donald Trump keep calling President Biden ‘Obama’ on the campaign trail?

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “the broader point” Biden was trying to make was that the U.S. is a “nation of immigrants − that is in our DNA.”

Where a high-profile gaffe might have damaged a candidate in past decades, they don’t have the same lasting impact, said O’ Reilly.

“The news cycle moves so quickly now that some other intriguing news nugget invariably comes along to save them,” he said. “If President Biden had called Americans xenophobic the damage might linger, but it shouldn’t in this case. There are plenty of more interesting things going on.”

The Excerpt podcast: Biden’s gaffes, Trump’s flubs: are they a sign of cognitive decline?

Biden’s remarks came just three weeks after the White House hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida with Biden extolling the “unbreakable alliance” between the U.S. and Japan.

The White House hosted Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi for a state visit last summer as it seeks to foster deeper ties with the country as a counterweight to China.

“Our allies and partners know very well just how much this president respects them,” said Jean-Pierre. “Obviously we have a strong relationship with India, with Japan.”

Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist, said gaffes matter when they reinforce a candidate’s existing vulnerabilities.

“When Mitt Romney dismissed 47% of the country as moochers, it reinforced the image of him as completely out of touch,” she said.

Contributing: Joey Garrison

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is a White House correspondent for USA TODAY. You can follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @SwapnaVenugopal

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Gaffe machine’ Biden makes a new one. Do candidate gaffes matter?



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