AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
As Joe Biden stumbles toward the end of a turbulent first year in office, there doesn’t appear to be any relief in sight for the beleaguered President. A border disaster, spiraling inflation, supply chain woes, and a record crime surge are just a few of the problems plaguing the current administration and weighing down Democrats nationally. However, while bad policy is certainly to blame for these crises, policy alone may not entirely explain Biden’s sinking popularity, or his stubborn inability to recover after each blunder. Another key and often overlooked reason for Biden’s ineptitude are his failures of public persuasion and communication. In short, his speeches are not good – and have at times bordered on the absurd – and without decent speeches, it is hard to see how Biden could recover his lost political capital.
The quality of speeches – both content and delivery – is a key test for any new president. How well they can communicate with the public is often the best indicator for how successful their term will be. It’s no coincidence that Ronald Reagan is widely considered one of the greatest presidents of the modern era and also earned the nickname “The Great Communicator.”
Democrats today are likely wishing they had part of that magic in the White House. To be sure, Biden has never been a particularly gifted speaker. One need only watch his bizarre recounting of an altercation with someone named “Corn Pop” to see that he has trouble constructing a coherent narrative without a script. Combine that unfortunate fact with speech texts that are full of cliches and lacking in direction, vision, argumentation, and depth, and the result is both uninspiring and unconvincing.
Biden set the bar low early with his first Address to a Joint Session of Congress (the special title given to a president’s first speech to Congress). After nearly 100 days – far longer than most presidents wait to give the speech – Biden finally took to a mostly-empty House floor at the end of April to deliver a thoroughly lackluster speech that was an obvious departure from the must-watch TV events that were the Trump State of the Union Addresses.
Amid all the starts and stops and fumbled lines, large portions of the speech focused on the vaccine rollout, which Biden inherited from the Trump administration, and tired Democratic talking points about the “urgent need” to pass “transformational legislation” on everything from climate change to a $15 minimum wage. Gone were the powerful personal stories that colored a hopeful vision for America which characterized the Trump speeches and earlier iterations of the State of the Union. Instead, Americans were subjected to vague assurances that the country is choosing “light over darkness,” is “on the move again,” and will “always get up.”
Even the media and other elected Democrats conceded afterward that the speech was a “laundry list”—and were quick to focus on anything but the actual content, specifically, the “historic” nature of having two women sitting behind the President during the speech for the first time (Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris). Hardly a rousing endorsement of Biden’s communication abilities.
It’s only gotten worse for Biden in the months since, especially as things have gone from bad to worse from a policy perspective. In July, for example, following Biden’s remarks defending his disastrous Afghanistan evacuation plan, a CNN article panned the speech as “the worst of Biden’s presidency.” It went on to blast the remarks as “peopled with straw men and littered with false assertions.” Other communications experts echoed that sentiment, blasting the speech in which Biden called the U.S. evacuation an “extraordinary success” as variously “abrasive,” “defensive,” and “angry.”
After the Afghanistan fallout, Biden delivered a speech at the United Nations to similarly poor reviews. Following the remarks, Vanity Fair ran the headline “Joe Biden Tries Convincing a Skeptical World that the United States is Back,” while Slate Magazine proclaimed, “Why the Fine Words of Biden’s U.N. Speech Rang Hollow.” These aren’t conservative publications. These are the outlets that have been carrying Democrats’ water for years.
It’s easy to see why the usually doting media didn’t like it – musing on democracy and human rights certainly does ring hollow in the wake of Biden’s unmitigated human rights failure in Afghanistan. Biden also stated that the U.S. was entering a new era of “relentless diplomacy” even as America’s oldest ally in France had taken the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassador over the Biden administration’s mishandling of a submarine deal with Australia. Amid all the high-flying rhetoric, Biden’s speechwriters seemed to forget that the remarks actually had to be somewhat tied to reality in order to be persuasive.
Biden’s less high-profile moments in front of a microphone have also been replete with platitudes and cringeworthy moments that make them borderline unwatchable. Even White House aides apparently agree, as they reportedly mute or turn off the TV when the President speaks. During remarks at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony (at which the President inexplicably appeared on stage a full two minutes after being announced by the event’s host) Biden introduced himself as “Jill Biden’s husband” and thanked Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for “[making] me look awful good in my judgements.” He was a walking cliché of clichés.
The few times Biden has appeared to achieve legislative victories, his pathetic speeches have left the White House unable to capitalize on them. For example, Congress passed the so-called “American Rescue Plan” in March and “bipartisan infrastructure bill” last month. Both should have been opportunities for a victory lap for the President, as they were major campaign promises. However, Biden simply hasn’t been able to sell the legislation, leading to frustration from Democratic lawmakers about the relative lack of public knowledge about the bills – something Democrats largely blame the White House for. House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-MA) has emphasized the importance of “seizing credit” for legislative wins, something Biden has been unable to do.
Biden’s handlers have predictably reacted to his deficiencies as an orator by trying to keep the doddering president out of the public eye as much as possible, with aides often seen ushering him away from reporters, and even his granddaughters seemingly understanding that he can’t be allowed to speak on his own. Most of his prepared speeches occur during workdays, when the vast majority of Americans are unable to tune in to watch live. This provides at least some degree of control for the White House, as the friendly mainstream media can splice together the more lucid parts for the evening news.
Regardless, Americans expect their leaders to present a clear vision for the country themselves, in person. Biden’s historically subpar speeches are likely playing heavily into his sinking poll numbers and the increasingly vocal dissatisfaction with his leadership. People will tolerate short-term economic pains and policy missteps, but they typically do not look kindly upon a leader who can’t explain where things went wrong and what must be done to make them right. If Biden and his speechwriters can’t figure that out, they will be in for a long three years until 2024.