President Joe Biden hasn’t been seen much in public in the last couple of weeks, and has yet to hold his first press conference. We have noted before in these pages that that’s probably a result of careful planning by his staff – which this week may have arranged to have the media video truncated after a presidential statement on COVID-19, when Biden seemed game for answering questions, but asked a handler if that’s what he was supposed to do.
On Thursday, however, it appears no one was prepared to leap in and keep the conversation from going off the rails when Biden engaged during a video conference with a NASA engineer on the topic of the engineer’s Indian ancestry.
The New York Post recounts a memorable moment from Biden’s remote meet-and-greet with members of the NASA team for the Mars mission, which in February landed the Perseverance rover on the Red Planet.
According to NYP: “President Biden on Thursday made one of his most head-turning comments since being sworn in when he told an Indian-American aerospace engineer that immigrants from the subcontinent are ‘taking over’ the US.”
The Post quotes Biden, speaking to Swati Mohan, who led NASA’s guidance and control operations for the Mars landing: “It’s amazing. Indian-descent Americans are taking over the country — you, my vice president, my speechwriter.”
Vice presidential takeover jokes aside, the Post suggests somewhat severely that this was a “seemingly tone-deaf effort at levity.” It’s a fair point. It’s hard to imagine a Republican president getting away with saying it (or even being motivated to say it, for that matter).
Numerous related events clamor to be recognized. Who can forget one of Biden’s all-time classics, uttered to an Indian-American supporter back in 2006: “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking!”
We know, Joe. We know. Biden’s 2020 follow-up on the topic of Asian-Americans in general might qualify as even more hapless. It’s hard to tell if he was trying to indict Americans (who, let us remember, include millions of diverse ethnic Asians), defend Chinese, throw South Koreans under the bus, or some combination thereof.
In a screed against Donald Trump’s stance on the coronavirus, Biden railed against Trump “blaming everything on on on China. He’s blaming everything on the Chinese. He’s blaming everything, and people don’t make a distinction. As you well know when the South Korean and someone from Beijing: They make no distinction. It’s Asia and that’s the way, and he’s just using it as a wedge.”
It’s a relief that Biden didn’t get into any of the other indistinguishable Asians he might have alluded to on that occasion, such as Japanese, Thais, Kazakhs, Pakistanis, or – yes – Indians, or we’d be here all day.
Fortunately, Indian-Americans have tended to be pretty good sports over the years about these eruptions from Joltin’ Joe.
The Associated Press, for its part, seems to have decided to know nothing about Indians taking over the country. Covering the same exchange with NASA on Thursday, AP overlooked the president’s remarks to Swati Mohan, reporting only that Biden “wanted to speak directly to the team, which he said deserved credit not only for the astronomical feat but also with boosting the United States’ reputation at a moment when it’s sorely needed.”
“Biden,” said AP, “who has made stemming a pandemic that has killed nearly 520,000 Americans his top priority, said that the Mars landing offered the nation a bit of inspiration at a moment when it’s sorely needed.”
Quoting Biden, AP continued: “We can land a rover on Mars, we can beat a pandemic. And with science, hope and vision, there’s not a damn thing we can’t do as a country.”
There may be one thing we’ll never manage, of course, and that would be dressing up the POTUS and taking him out of the basement without incurring fresh indecorous remarks to sweep under the rug.