Clip: Biden defends handling of aerial objects after days of bipartisan criticism

Feb. 17, 2023 AT 8:45 p.m. EST

President Biden defended his handling of the Chinese spy balloon and the downing of three other aerial objects. After days of criticism, Biden gave an update and said the three unidentified objects were probably not used for spying.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Yamiche Alcindor: That on Thursday, President Biden gave a speech on the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon and three other unidentified objects. While defending his decisions, the president said the three objects were probably not used for spying. Take a listen.

Joe Biden: I've directed my team to come back to me with sharper rules to distinguish between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks.

But make no mistake, if any object presents a threat to the safety and security of the American people, I will take it down.

Yamiche Alcindor: Zolan, we just can't get away from this topic. And President Biden, he spoke out because there's a lot of criticism from Democrats and Republicans that he wasn't saying enough about this. So, why did he decide to speak out now and how is the White House feeling this?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Well, there was criticism building, not just the first week of this, it was almost. The White House wasn't being aggressive enough, you allowed this Chinese spy balloon to go across the country, waited too long. Then the criticism started to shift and more people came in. And now today, I heard questions in the briefing room of was there possible overreaction in shooting down these two second objects that we don't seem to know what they are?

There was a report I saw, and there's a club, a hobby club that says maybe it was one of my handmade balloons in Illinois, we don't know if that's confirmed. John Kirby said that he had read that report but could not confirm it as well. The U.S. still doesn't know exactly what these materials are. So, you saw people start to -- members of Congress start to join in and really questioning just the ambiguity around the strategy here.

And I think what hangs over this in a way is, one, you do have Republicans that are trying to show that they are more hawkish on China and trying to show that the White House is not being aggressive enough when it comes to competition with China, but, two, you also have this new dynamic when it comes to this competition between these two superpowers of this thing called near space, right, which is above us, where there really are no borders, there really are no lines depicting different sovereign countries, where it is almost a free-for-all of military devices at this point. And I think that is going to be a question going forward of how members of Congress come together after this incident in governments in trying to establish rules governing that area.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Ashley, just like the politics of this, especially as when we think about the president's relationship with China and President Xi not wanting to really get into a situation where they're too adversarial, even as he says that, of course, the competition that we should be looking at globally is China.

Ashley Parker: Right. We saw the vice president in Munich for the security conference saying that this balloon was not helpful, that's quite obvious. But you also on the flipside had President Biden saying, look, I don't think that President Xi of China wants to blow up this relationship, right? So, they have an incentive to try to be competitors, to be geopolitical foes but to try to work together.

Eva McKend: What we also saw, though, is this president and I think this administration not wanting to be bullied and come forward before they were ready, before they really knew what they were talking about. Imagine if the last week of January he was out here making declarative statements, and he turned out to be wrong. So, I think that is what we saw, sort of this balancing act in real-time.

Scott MacFarlane: I think it's the weekend that we saw a separation between the spy balloon and the other balloons, the UFOs. I got to tell you, my kids think daddy's work is boring until I mentioned I'm covering UFOs today. Suddenly, I got their attention with some credibility with the kids.

Congress has reverted to its more comfortable position, where, by the end of the week, when they recognized these other three flying objects were not necessarily a danger to society, they got to complain about process, which is what Congress loves to do. They did not get the information to which they felt they were entitled as quickly as they felt they were entitled to it and that always rankles Congress in a uniquely powerful way.

Yamiche Alcindor: And I want to -- I mean, this -- obviously, the topic is one that we could talk about for a while, but before the show ends, Scott, I want to just recognize that Senator John Fetterman, he is someone who is now disclosing that he is going to be treated for clinical depression. I'm thinking about this family. He is in my heart because he's had to deal with so much. Politics aside, as someone who has survived a stroke, who's dealing with issue, what you make of the fact that he is disclosing this and the real challenges that he's facing?

Scott MacFarlane: I think there is a bipartisan appreciation that he made a public announcement to reduce the stigma which prevents some people from getting the care they need. Two numbers jumped out at me. The National Institutes of Health says 20 million Americans had an episode of depression in 2020 and one in three patients who are recovering from a stroke have suffered depression. So, those numbers make clear that John Fetterman is joining publicly a very large club of Americans.

Yamiche Alcindor: And it is, in some ways, striking when you think, Ashley, about the fact that he is saying, I am having problems in a city where a lot of people don't say that. We have a lot of elected officials who have some sorts of problems who don't talk about it.

Ashley Parker: Well, it is very Gen-Z of him in a certain way, right, to publicly, actively seek the mental help that he needs, and you don't see a lot of politicians doing that. But I think that is why, in a bipartisan way, I was struck by what everyone responded to this, or almost everyone. It was with empathy, it was with words like this is brave, they appreciate him coming forward and getting the help they need. Because to those stats that Scott cited, this is something that a lot of people grapple with daily in a private way. And I think like many of those things, they appreciate it when they feel a bit less alone. And when you have a U.S. senator doing that, he's helping himself and he's also helping inadvertently a lot of other people by making him feel less alone.

Scott MacFarlane: We should underscore, he has access to care. How many Americans can't get -- hard is it to get on the waitlist for a therapist? How hard is it to get access for your insurance to pay for mental health care coverage? It underscores that John Fetterman is fortunately getting the access he needs.

Yamiche Alcindor: And you have about ten seconds. Go ahead.

Eva McKend: And having covered him a little bit in Erie and in Pittsburgh during the election, he was accessible. That's constantly what I heard from voters. Like they felt like they could connect with him regardless of party. They saw themselves in him. So, I think this him disclosing that, that he has depression, is just an extension of that accessibility, of voters feeling as though he is within reach.

Yamiche Alcindor: And him really leaning into the idea that he wants to tell people and be transparent about what he's dealing with. I mean, I say it again, I will think about his family and definitely am hoping hope that he gets all of the help he needs.


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Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, Feb. 17, 2023

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