Biden gave his speech outside the building where the US Constitution was written, as two Marines in blue gear stood in the background. A red light bathed the building and the Marines.
Biden warns that the United States faces a powerful threat from anti-democratic forces
Presidents have long used American troops and military equipment to address the American people. But military officials have often sought to reduce how people in uniform are drawn into the political spotlight, adhering to the belief that the military is an institution that protects all Americans, regardless of political affiliation.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, acknowledged that the administration made a conscious decision to include the Marines for symbolism.
“The president gave an important speech last night about our democracy and our values, values that our men and women in uniform fight every day to protect,” the official said in a statement. “The presence of the Marines at the speech was intended to demonstrate the President’s deep and abiding respect for their service to these ideals and the unique role our independent military plays in defending our democracy, regardless of which party is in power.”
For some scholars who study civil-military affairs, the use of Marines as a backdrop for discourse was unwise.
Duke University professor Peter Feaver said that while presidents are political actors, they “must be careful not to bring the military into the picture when engaging in partisan political acts.”
“In this case, the choice to literally keep Marine guards in the frame was unfortunate,” said Feaver, who has expressed concern about how Trump has politicized the military on numerous occasions. “It may even have the effect of distracting from the message as people debate the optics rather than the substance of the president’s speech.”
Lindsay Cohn, who studies civil-military affairs at the Naval War College, said Biden being framed by Marines during the speech was “not a crisis, but it could and should have been avoided.”
Cohn said she could see an argument that Biden was making a necessary, nonpartisan speech in which he explicitly noted that not all Republicans pose a threat. But she added that the Biden administration needs to be “too sensitive and cautious about the optics to try to reinforce some of the standards” that the Trump administration has weakened.
Addressing US troops at the Pentagon in February 2021 at the start of his administration, Biden said he would never disrespect them and “never politicize the work you do.”
Biden’s critics — many of whom remained silent during Trump’s battles with the Pentagon — pounced on the use of the Marines.
“The only thing worse than Biden’s speech trashing his fellow citizens is wrapping himself in our flag and the Marines to do it,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-California) tweeted.
The only thing worse than Biden’s speech trashing his fellow citizens is wrapping himself in our flag and the Marines to do it.
— Rep. Darrell Issa (@repdarrellissa) September 2, 2022
James Hutton, a Veterans Affairs official in the Trump administration, tweeted that Biden “used the Marines as props for his divisive and clearly political speech.”
Biden supporters responded by pointing out the many ways Trump has undermined the nonpartisan nature of the military.
In June 2020, he sought for days to use active-duty US troops to quell protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, alarming senior Pentagon officials who viewed his plans as an abuse of power. At the height of the crisis, federal forces evacuated protesters from Lafayette Square outside the White House before Trump led other senior US officials to a nearby church for a photo opportunity. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later apologized for briefly appearing with the president outside the White House, saying his presence at that time “created the perception of the army involved in domestic politics”.
Early in his administration, Trump visited the Pentagon and signed executive actions that included an order to severely curb immigration from several Muslim-majority countries. He did so in the Pentagon’s “Hall of Heroes,” a room dedicated to Army Medal of Honor recipients.