Listening to Joe Biden
Like Wagner's music, his speeches have generally been much "better than they sound." And certainly better than portrayed in the press. What I'll be listening for tonight.
Joe Biden talking about Israel and Palestine last week in the White House, with Antony Blinken behind him. (Jim Watson AFP via Getty Images.)
As president, Joe Biden has had three strikes against him in press reception to most of his speeches.
The stutter. First is the simple process of uttering words. As John Hendrickson memorably detailed, Biden has worked against a stutter through most of his life. The tireder he gets, and probably the older, the more obvious an effort this takes. Even in big performances, when he’s fully rested, you can see a potential stutter lurking as an anxiety for him, as with someone feeling the way step-by-step across a narrow bridge over a deep ravine.
The plainness. Second is the mature Biden’s plain-spoken approach to “eloquence.” The young-hotshot Biden came of age under the rhetorical imprint of the Kennedys: John, Robert, Teddy. Early on he tried for their stagey eloquence—and tried too hard, as in a famous embarrassment. The grandfatherly Biden, by contrast, is in the rhetorical model of Harry Truman1 or Dwight Eisenhower: trying for a striking line when possible, but mainly committed to making his intent and emotion clear. As noted before, I admire this in Biden—as most historians do in Truman and in Eisenhower. But it doesn’t get the enthusiastic “Oh, the stirring oratory!” next-day play in newspapers or on TV.2
The ‘meh’ factor. Third is simply the handicap applied to nearly everything Biden has done. He was “no one’s first choice” in the primaries, yet he managed somehow to hold the party together and beat Donald Trump by more than 7 million votes. He was the “unpopular” standard-bearer and “drag” on his party’s prospects, even as his Democrats startled nearly all pundits in the 2022 midterms and subsequent off-year elections and referenda. He is the stiff, noncharismatic figure—no positive energy like Obama’s, no negative energy like Trump’s—who is endlessly disparaged on Fox and called “too old,” and yet who somehow made the NATO alliance the strongest-ever, and bolstered US ties with countries in the Pacific other than China.
As I’ve written many times, every president is guaranteed to fail. The only question is how badly, and in what way. The job is too demanding, the pressures too nonstop, the world too crisis-filled, for any other outcome. A president who never faltered would need the combined and contradictory strengths of a Lincoln and an Eisenhower, of Teddy Roosevelt and of Franklin, of Thomas Jefferson and of Ulysses Grant. Obviously no real person has had all these skills.
But Biden has done amazingly well under the pressures of his times—and been amazingly pooh-poohed by the press (“why doesn’t he step down?”) while doing so. Wrestling with economic fundamentals? Here is one example that stands for hundreds. The Wall Street Journal ran the headline below at the bottom of an inside page today, and the New York Times had it not in the front section but on the business pages. In short: overall household wealth is going up, and wealth-inequality is going down. Compare this understated play with the nonstop front-page coverage of rising prices for gasoline and eggs one year ago. Or imagine how the story would have been played if the findings had been the opposite—and American income gaps had continued to worsen rather than improve:
Bottom of page A4, from today’s Wall Street Journal.
Scandals? By this point in their first term, virtually every other president in modern times has had half-a-dozen early resignations, staff brouhahas, potential scandals, and other embarrassments. As best I can tell, Biden’s only “scandal” has been the manufactured outrage over his son Hunter. Mis-judgments? Many of my journalistic colleagues pleaded at the time that Biden’s determination to withdraw from Afghanistan would be the “defining” event of his time in office, a hinge-of-history toward American irrelevance. They were wrong, or over-heated; in my view he was right. A lot has happened since then, especially in Ukraine, where—again in my view—he has made difficult judgment calls on the right side.
It is an impossible job. Which—in my view—Biden has done better than most people would have expected, and than most “things might be better now, but they could get worse” coverage would lead you to believe.
What this means for Biden’s speech tonight
Now, three points to notice about Biden’s generally un-celebrated speeches, which I’ll be watching for tonight.