intelligencer chats

Why Joe Biden’s Speech Worked

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

He didn’t suggest that injecting bleach might cure COVID, but President Biden did manage to make some effective points anyway during his televised speech addressing the pandemic on Thursday night. I spoke with Vulture staff writer Kathryn VanArendonk about why his message resonated and Biden’s early media strategy overall.

Ben: More than perhaps any other politician, Joe Biden is associated with empathy about and around personal tragedy. In his first prime-time televised address Thursday night, Biden leaned into his role as consoler once again, speaking of the grief and pain many Americans have experienced during the last difficult year. But he also offered a big dose of hope about the pandemic, talking up the speedy pace of vaccination and setting July 4 as the day when Americans could safely gather again, albeit not in large groups. What did you make of Biden’s speech overall?

Kathryn: I was really taken with the speech’s emphasis on details, which was such a smart move for a prime-time TV audience. Speeches like this tend to go heavy on the sweeping rhetoric, and there was plenty of that here, too. It’s very American to find light in the darkness. We are strong in the broken places, etc. We like sweeping rhetoric! But in both the pain and in the hope, it was a speech that leaned into specific images, which I thought played to both Biden’s strengths as a communicator and to the form of “big prime-time TV speech.” The challenge is making these feel intimate without turning casual, and his invocation of all the little rituals we’ve lost, all the details that make up American life that he wants the country to have back, that played really well.

Ben: Though he just signed an enormous stimulus package and there’s plenty happening in Washington and his administration, Biden has by choice not been the dominant media presence his predecessor was, or anything closely resembling that. (He hasn’t had a press conference in ages, which is a deserved point of criticism.) Instead, it feels more like he’s operating more in the background. Was the effectiveness of Thursday’s speech bolstered by the fact that Biden isn’t a constant image in our lives, so that when he pops up, the importance of what he’s saying is magnified?

Kathryn: I think so? From a sheer exhaustion standpoint, at least, there’s a real relief in being able to focus on the content of the speech, the presentation of those ideas, and know that they won’t be immediately contradicted or undone on Twitter a few hours later. There’s a downside, too, from the gut-churning perspective of how entertaining (shocking, heart-pumping, sickening, truly surprising) it all is. For a lot of viewers, I can imagine seeing this speech as both rote and boring. But I was struck by what it felt like to get news alerts on my phone before the speech happened with information about what the speech would contain. Because I saw those alerts, got the gist, and then voilà, that’s what he said! It felt like less of a Big TV Event than a Big Trump Speech. But Big TV Events are often, by accident or by design, train wrecks. They’re spectacles, which are more superficially entertaining and also much worse at communicating ideas. This was probably less entertaining, and the ideas were much clearer.

Ben: Many on the right paint Biden as a guy who is on the verge of losing control of his faculties. Their exaggerations aside, it’s true that he is a visibly different communicator than he was a few years ago, as was most in evidence during the primary debates. (He has also, famously, struggled with stuttering in the past.) There are times when he stumbles over words, or elides something, or just doesn’t come across as smoothly and succinctly as someone like Barack Obama. For a televised speech like this one, does that matter in terms of delivering the message? A lot of people seemed to view these minor missteps as humanizing Biden over the last couple years.

Kathryn: You know, this is something I go back and forth on a lot, and it’s tied up with all kinds of mixed feelings I have about stuff like how old so many of our elected representatives are, how our day-to-day communication with one another has changed in the last year and the last decade, and the overlapping skills required of politicians and celebrities. There are other issues in there, too — what kinds of figures do we still struggle to see as inherently authoritative? What does formal speech sound like to most Americans? And, because I spend a lot of my day watching scripted stuff, or unscripted reality TV that’s been heavily edited, or just straight up TikTok, how has our perception of smooth communication changed now that digital editing tools are easy and omnipresent? I’ve been very helpful and answered none of your questions! But the answer is something like, “I love when his speeches feel authentic, and yet I cringe when I sense he’s made a verbal flub, and I don’t know what to do with that contradiction.” What are your thoughts on this, because clearly mine are all over the place?

Ben: I feel similarly, I’d say. Generally, he’s been able to skirt that line between “sounds like a regular guy” and “uh oh, this is going off the rails” quite well, at least since those aforementioned debates, when I was more alarmed. But it’s undeniable that every time he appears on my TV screen, there’s a moment of remembering that we do have a 78-year-old president, and there’s probably a decent reason that hasn’t happened before. But it’s a very good point about what we see as authoritative. Would a 78-year-old woman who makes similar mini-flubs get the kind of benefit of the doubt he does? Somehow I doubt it.

Kathryn: And it’s not as though it never works for him, or as if he’s never able to use that folksy grandpa tone to his advantage. There were two simple, effective moments in that speech, for me, that felt pretty quintessentially Biden. One was when he pulled out the card with the number of COVID deaths on it. Of course he has a physical card with his schedule in his suit jacket pocket. It’s what America’s grandpa would do. The other was when he leaned onto the podium to emphasize how much he needs everyone’s help. His persona lets him ask for collective help in a way that feels like leadership rather than weakness. But yes, I do long for the return of a time when I can watch the most powerful person in the country and not be quite so aware that we all live in rapidly decaying flesh sacks.

The big question for me is how the next several weeks play out from a TV/media/storytelling perspective! He has this huge job ahead of him, which is to communicate to everyone what this act does and that it is a massive victory for him and for most Americans. But the same thing that made this one TV speech feel pleasantly uneventful is a real challenge for Democrats historically and for that kind of presidential presence, more broadly. It’s a serial storytelling challenge (my bailiwick! my favorite thing!), and it remains to be seen whether Biden and his administration can figure out how to take this promising first episode and translate that into a longer narrative. Sure, the pilot went pretty well. I want to see what episode five looks like.

And as I say that, please know that it is purely a metaphor and I cannot tell you how grateful I am to no longer be living within a presidency that lived and died on the value of television ratings.

Why Joe Biden’s Speech Worked