". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


A Tale of Two Apologies

March 12, 2024

Two errors in President Joe Biden’s Thursday State of the Union (SOTU) address have prompted calls for apologies, but the president has only apologized for one. Like every aspect surrounding the SOTU, Biden’s choice of apologies is a deliberately calculated political decision, one which provides insight into the conduct of the administration and his strategy for the 2024 campaign.

Both errors occurred during an unscripted acknowledgement of the brutal murder of Laken Riley, a Georgia nursing student killed while jogging; charged for the crime is a Venezuelan national with prior arrests who is in the country illegally. Given the politically and emotionally charged nature of the affair, Biden managed to trigger everyone in only a dozen words: “Lincoln Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal.”


The first error is obvious. Instead of calling the deceased by her name, Laken, Biden instead said “Lincoln Riley,” which is the name of the man who coaches the USC Trojans football team. This misstatement gave the impression that, unlike many Americans, Biden had not made himself aware of her tragic death, such that a football coach’s name came more readily to mind.

The second error is less obvious. Instead of calling Riley’s alleged murderer an “undocumented migrant,” Biden called him an “illegal.” This is not an error in the sense that it is factually untrue, but it was a mistake in that it deviated from his administration’s messaging and from the grand strategy of his fourth SOTU address.

The Biden administration has consistently employed euphemisms like “root causes of migration” to refer to the southern border crisis. This policy includes describing illegal immigrants as “undocumented” immigrants, or even as “newcomers,” as the White House called them in a February 29, 2024 fact sheet. The primary purpose of these linguistic choices is to appease those on the progressive extreme of the Democratic Party who object to national borders on principle, and who therefore consider it immoral to criminalize the act of crossing them.

Biden’s most recent SOTU address appeared to strategically target this same group, or a largely overlapping group that comprises the president’s base. Biden’s “angry” speech “spoke to every issue that would destroy the traditional values, the principles upon which this country was founded,” asserted Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.). “He launched into a campaign speech that said, ‘Republicans, we don’t want you. … Independents, we don’t expect you to support us either. We’re going to our radical Left, hoping that they’ll support us.’”

Thus, Biden’s mistake in calling the immigrant who allegedly killed Riley an “illegal” was not that he said something that wasn’t true, but that he angered the very group he was working so hard to please.

If the story ended there, the moral would be that politicians shouldn’t try too hard to please groups who will never be satisfied.


But the story did not end there. When asked, during a Saturday interview with MSNBC, about his use of the word “illegal” in his Thursday SOTU, Biden responded:

“Undocumented person. And I shouldn’t have used ‘illegal.’ It’s ‘undocumented person.’ And look, when I spoke about the difference between Trump and me, one of the things I talked about on the border was the way he talks about ‘vermin,’ the way he talks about ‘polluting the blood.’ I talked about what I’m not going to do, what I won’t do. I’m not going to treat anybody, any of these people, with disrespect. … I don’t share his view at all.”

In this response, Biden took pains to morally distinguish his position from that of Trump, which he represented as disrespectful of illegal immigrants (Trump’s position on immigration is beyond the scope of this piece). Biden added that he wouldn’t treat anyone, including illegal immigrants, with disrespect. This remark provided the rationale for his initial admission, “I shouldn’t have used ‘illegal.’ It’s ‘undocumented person,’” thus implying the term “illegal” is disrespectful. Conventionally, this is called an apology, and news outlets have reported it as such.

On Monday, his press team tried to walk back the walk-back, after the president took criticism for both using the word “illegal” and then apologizing for doing so.

“The president absolutely did not apologize. There was no apology anywhere in that conversation. He did not apologize,” insisted White House Deputy Press Secretary Olivia Dalton. “He used a different word.”

Oh, is that what happened? It seems like such an easy-peasy shortcut out of any unpleasant responsibility. Simply “use a different word” and — voila — apology avoided.

Unfortunately for the White House’s pedantry, “using a different word” is how dictionaries define things. Merriam-Webster defines “apologize” this way: “to express regret for something done or said.” “Regret” means “to be very sorry for.”

Did Biden express regret for something he said? He admitted to saying a word he “shouldn’t have used.” “Should” expresses “obligation” or “propriety.” He proceeded to explain why he thought the word was improper and why he had an obligation not to use it. Then he promised not to say it again.

But no, he didn’t apologize. Absolutely not. No apology anywhere. Often in politics, a statement’s accuracy is directly correlated to the force with which it is denied.

By comparison, the media neglected coverage of Biden’s other, more obvious error. Remember that Biden referred to Laken Riley (a female) as “Lincoln” (a male name).

According to the Left’s gender mythology, this is called “misgendering,” and it is a serious offense. When expedient — that is, when it serves their political agenda or enables them to claim victimhood status — the Left can whip up a sudden gale of fury over such imaginary slights. Recently, the Democrat-controlled Virginia Senate forced Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears (R) to apologize for accurately and respectfully referring to trans-identifying Senator Danica Roem (D) as “sir.”

Here we are confronted with a victim of a real crime — a murder. Here too, a powerful politician literally adds insult to injury by mistaking her name for the one and only time he has publicly acknowledged her existence. Thus, the politician broke the widely recognized norm of honoring the memory of the dead, most importantly by remembering their names (the piece of them so important we inscribe it on their tombstones).

The politician not only mistakes her name but calls her by a name belonging to the other gender — which, in the eyes of the Left, should heighten the offense. The victim even belonged to a class sympathetic to the Left’s intersectionality matrix (young, female, nursing student). The politician decidedly does not (rich, old, white, male).

What has the Left offered in protest? Crickets.

Therefore, what did Biden offer by way of apology? More crickets.


I do not write to fault the president for flubbing a couple of impromptu words during an hour-long speech. Even the most polished public speaker, if he speaks as much as a president, is liable to occasional slip-ups. These errors, by themselves, say little about the Biden administration or his reelection campaign (although it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two).

The follow-up, however, was deliberate. The things for which Biden chose to apologize, not apologize, and pretend to apologize were deliberate. These were not decisions made on live television but after enough time had elapsed for discussion, consideration, and the application of an overarching strategy. We can therefore extrapolate from them the following three implications:

Biden remains unreasonably beholden to the Left. There is no good reason to stop using, or apologize for using, the term “illegal immigrant.” “‘Illegal immigrant’ is a succinct, correct, descriptive term. ‘Undocumented’ is an evasion. Someone doesn’t have documents exactly because they are illegal,” Rich Lowry pointed out.

Once upon a time, at least some voices in the media understood this. Back in 2012, ABC News criticized the Associated Press and New York Times for continuing to use the term “illegal immigrant” in their style guide. New York Times immigration reporter Julia Preston insisted at the time that the term was “accurate” and “considers the broad terms of the debate.” Of course, when a newspaper’s staff revolt over running an op-ed by a sitting U.S. senator, they are no longer interested in “the broad terms of the debate.”

Even if progressive bullies won the media debate, the accurate and descriptive term remains in use in other legitimate contexts. In fact, in a court opinion published Friday, a federal district judge used the terms “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens.”

This opinion goes to show that the term “illegal immigrant” is not some slur everyone agrees is inappropriate to use. Only a relatively small faction believes it is inappropriate. Yet this faction extracted an apology from the president of the United States.

It’s difficult to explain this fact without drawing the conclusion that this faction — the extreme Left — exercises more influence over President Biden than the average American. That conclusion would be consistent with other behavior from his administration, such as his unpopular abandonment of Israel, his lawless student loan forgiveness scheme, and his rankly partisan SOTU address.

Biden is sensitive to media criticism. Yet Biden doesn’t only listen to the extreme Left; he also cares a good deal how the media is reporting on his administration. Thus his attempt to backtrack from his apology once it was criticized.

This point might seem redundant, or at least closely related, since much of the legacy media skews far to the left and usually reports favorably on their antics. But, to the extent they are distinct, Biden cares about what both groups — the far Left and the media — think about him. This hunger for positive media coverage, with or without positive policy outcomes, is also what we’ve come to expect from the Biden administration: depleting the strategic oil reserves, signing the so-called Inflation Reduction Act that did everything but that, or repeatedly declaring the success of Bidenomics while consumers were still feeling the sticker shock.

Biden isn’t interested in hearing about victims of his open border policy. Biden had no excuse not to know Laken Riley’s name before his SOTU speech. Her murder took place 14 days earlier and quickly became national news as every major outlet covered it, including those Biden cares so much about. Her parents were invited as guests to the SOTU (they declined, but a seat was left open in their honor). Yet, as a president who likes to name victims, he didn’t know her name. He has never apologized for butchering her name.

The reality is, Biden isn’t interested in hearing about the victims of illegal immigrants because hearing about them might cause him to change his mind about the morality, or at least the wisdom, of his open border policy. He needs to maintain this policy because he depends on the radical Left, which is allergic to the very idea of borders.

Again, these implications are not primarily drawn from a dozen words ad-libbed during a long speech. They are drawn from the later decisions about which apology to neglect and which apology to express. The Biden administration knows what it is doing, and what it’s doing is expressing more care for criminals in the country illegally than for their victims.

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.