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Biden absolves Coast Guard cadets of minor infractions, jokes about his own

President also reiterates support for Law of the Sea pact

President Joe Biden uses his fingers to whistle Wednesday during the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s commencement exercises in New London, Conn.
President Joe Biden uses his fingers to whistle Wednesday during the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s commencement exercises in New London, Conn. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden said Wednesday he had long been looking forward to one of the great traditions of presidential commencement speeches at America’s service academies: absolving the graduates of minor infractions.

Speaking at the Coast Guard Academy commencement in New London, Conn., the president alluded to his own time as a less-than-perfect student at the University of Delaware: “As we say in my faith, I needed absolution.”

“Minor infractions like using a fire extinguisher to hose down an RA,” Biden said, recalling an old story.

The president had a fair bit of trouble getting the straight-laced cadets, gathered on the academy football field, to respond to his attempted laugh lines, prompting him to quip, “You’re a really dull class. Is the sun getting to you?”

Biden, who has delivered scores of graduation speeches in his decades in public life, mixed jokes such as how the graduating cadets survived getting “a haircut that showed every damn bump on your head” with seriousness, pointing to the Coast Guard Academy’s success in operating during the COVID-19 pandemic and its role in assisting the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the response.

“You were able to go back to your lives and training, here in New London, to conduct your first-year class in person. It certainly looked and felt different, I’m sure,” Biden said. “But you found ways … to keep many of the academy’s traditions alive, and maybe even formed a few new ones.”

“You still were able to bring your cars on campus, you just weren’t allowed to go anywhere in those cars. Oh man, I tell you what, I have trouble watching my cars sit there,” said the president, who likely had vehicles on the mind after getting to test drive the new electric Ford F-150 while in Michigan on Tuesday.

Support for maritime pact

But on the serious front, Biden took the opportunity to outline his administration’s views on U.S. maritime policy, saying his administration would continue to support the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 agreement that established rules governing oceans and their resources. The United States signed on in 1994, but the Senate has never consented to ratification.

“As we work together with our democratic partners around the world, to both update rules through this new age, and to hold all of us accountable for living up to those rules, your mission … will become even more global, and even more important,” Biden said.

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, joined Tuesday with Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to again introduce a resolution calling on the Senate to back the treaty document.

“In the South China Sea, the treaty would enable us to contest unlawful Chinese claims through an international tribunal rather than military escalation and dangerous freedom of navigation operations prone to miscalculation. In the Arctic, the treaty would allow us to resolve territorial disputes of continental shelf claims as we see more access in a region that up to this point in time has been inaccessible,” Murkowski said in a statement. “But, without ratification, the U.S. lacks a seat at the table for these negotiations.”

Biden spoke to both of the challenges identified by Murkowski in his speech Wednesday.

“When nations try to game the system, or tip the rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance. And that’s why we are so adamant that these areas of the world that are the arteries of trade and shipping remain peaceful, whether that’s the South China Sea, the Arabian Gulf and, increasingly, the Arctic — it’s of vital interest to America’s foreign policy to secure unimpeded flow of global commerce,” the president said.

Biden also touched on how the Coast Guard, which is perhaps best known for its role in domestic waters, except when it joins with the military services in times of war, will continue to be more active internationally.

“You have an essential role in our efforts to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said. “Our new agreement for the Coast Guard to partner with Taiwan [will] help ensure we’re positioned to better respond to shared threats in the region, and to conduct coordinated humanitarian and environmental missions.”

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