How many speeches would you guess that President Joe Biden has made—since Nov. 1, say—on the landmark infrastructure bill that just got passed in Congress? How many have you heard or caught snippets of or had someone mention to you?
If your answer to the former is nowhere near the correct number (six), and your answer to the latter is somewhere closer to zero, you are not alone. Biden isn’t a major attraction, and that may be having serious consequences for his presidency. It’s a curious but persistent feature of political polling right now that while the contents of the Build Back Better plan and the just-passed infrastructure bill are quite popular, Biden—the president whose platform they advance—is not. This is an inversion of Biden’s position throughout much of the election, wherein the charms of his agenda, such as they were, seemed secondary to the personal appeal he held for voters exhausted by Trump’s bottomless need for attention. Some of the qualities that may have helped Biden win the presidency—his un-outrageousness, his contempt for drama, and his mild, reasonable, if slightly garbled affect—are injuring his ability to communicate with his constituents. (I’m exaggerating his public persona slightly here, to be clear: Biden has a well-documented temper, though it hasn’t been much in evidence during his presidency.) The president’s agenda, despite being whittled down by polarization and a wire-thin majority in Congress, may make some truly important strides. Whether he or Democrats will reap any rewards remains a question, because Biden’s messaging about their achievements isn’t getting out.
It’s not because he isn’t speaking; Biden is communicating constantly. In many of his speeches on the infrastructure bill he makes a good and persuasive case—at least on paper—for why it’s important. But he’s not making that case on paper. He’s doing it on television, and people aren’t tuning in.
Biden’s “ratings” are by any metric lower than Trump’s. Biden isn’t a newsmaker when he speaks; he doesn’t aim to be. His approach is conciliatory; he talks about bipartisanship and refers (with apparent sincerity) to his “Republican friends.” It’s not remotely surprising, given this repressively anti-demagogic approach, that his first speech to a joint session of Congress during his presidency drew 26.9 million viewers compared with the 47.7 million who watched Trump’s first address. This discrepancy is sometimes chalked up to Trump’s charisma, or his talent for reality TV showboating. Those ratings were just as much a function of the alarm many Americans felt during his presidency: People tuned in to see what awful new developments they had to prepare for—or oppose. It’s also a presidential media reflection of everything we’ve learned about the Facebook news feed: Outrage sells. I’ve written a lot about how relieved some Democratic voters seem to be that they can tune out a bit under Biden. But if that dynamic may have helped Biden win, it’s not serving him particularly well now that he’s actually in office.
I set out to write this piece intending to see how Biden’s persona as “empathizer-in-chief” had evolved since he assumed the presidency. One of the more striking features of his campaign was his ability to connect—on television—with the pain and grief voters were feeling by channeling his own experience as a bereaved husband and father. I’d expected Biden to have moved on from that mode for purely strategic reasons: For a politician nearly a year into his term, “I feel your pain” is less effective political messaging than claiming to have fixed the cause of it.
I was wrong—maybe to Biden’s detriment. Biden’s pitch for the Build Back Better bill, for instance, includes truly empathetic appeals, some addressed even to the millennials whose concerns he hasn’t always treated with particular sympathy. “Millions of you are in the so-called sandwich generation, who feel financially squeezed by raising a child and caring for an aging parent,” he said on Oct. 28. “About 820,000 seniors in America and people with disabilities have applied for Medicaid—and they’re on a waiting list right now to get home care. … You’re just looking for an answer so your parents can keep living independently with dignity.”
The empathy pitch remains, but the pivot toward accomplishments isn’t really finding an audience. That’s not because Biden isn’t presenting solutions; the policies he proposes for seniors are good and necessary (expanding services and helping them live at home with care if they so choose). But his tone, neither exhortative nor triumphalist nor even particularly reassuring, is sort of … flat. This is the Biden paradox, it seems to me: Biden is a deeply comforting presence in times of grief, but emotional comfort is different from political reassurance, and there is something about Biden’s delivery that fails on the latter front. I have discovered, to my intense surprise, that I sometimes find Biden no less challenging to listen to than Trump. The reasons differ: Trump’s singsongy bluster was cognitively taxing to listen to, especially since media outlets tended to charitably smooth his stream-of-consciousness ramblings into upsetting but cogent messages, but more upsetting than that was the fact that you could hear him connecting with people anyway, just through timbre and emphasis. (This was the insight that made James Austin Johnson’s legendary impersonation—which demonstrated that content matters less than the hypnotic slackening and tightening of cadence—so good.) Trump spoke in short, easy phrases he repeated endlessly: Lock her up. Build the wall. Biden is basically the flip side: The content of his speeches can be good—at his best, he can present a complicated and reasonably persuasive argument to a country in need—but his delivery is such that you can almost hear the message failing to land. Biden can connect with mourners grieving a loss, but he’s not great at selling a vision.
Some of this is stylistic. Biden’s messaging tends to be complex rather than simple, bellicose, and repetitive. His effort Wednesday to reassure Americans about the threat posed by the omicron variant of COVID-19 while also explaining how his administration is solving supply chain issues—aggressively claiming real credit for doing so!—is emphatically not repetitive. It’s a thorny set of issues to navigate and explain, and frankly, he does it pretty well! Biden makes a good, even elegant, argument for why Americans really need to understand all the steps he and his administration have taken to ease a global supply chain crisis afflicting everyone. It’s solid political messaging on paper about what a good government can do. It should be breaking through. But I can see why it doesn’t. Watching the speech live, I find myself nervously tuning out halfway through a sentence. Biden’s delivery can unintentionally make him seem unconvinced of his own proposals. That doesn’t reassure; at worst, it provokes unease.
But the problem isn’t just Biden’s style; it’s what he’s saying. Biden’s focus on the complexity of things, his inherent pragmatism, can come off as overly neutral or even a bit of a downer. His remarks after the Supreme Court heard arguments to overturn Roe v. Wade were shockingly tame: He finds supporting Roe to be the “rational” position, he said, as if rationality were remotely relevant to the fact that a stacked court is preparing to deprive Americans of the right to abortion. That lack of fire may be costing him an audience he needs to convince of his effectiveness—and whose attention he needs to recapture so they’ll actually listen to what he has to say. Even his infrastructure and Build Back Better pitches—convincing though I find them—are dolefully structured around the difficulties Americans face and the ways we have fallen behind. While he’s functionally building a hopeful case, tonally, it’s a eulogy:
For most of the 20th century, we led the world by a significant margin because we invested in our people. Not only in our roads, in our highways, and our bridges, but in our people, in our families. We didn’t just build an interstate highway system, we built a highway to the sky. We invested to win the space race, and we won. We were also among the first to provide access to free education for all Americans, beginning back in the late 1800s. That decision alone to invest in our children and their families was a major part of why we were able to lead the world for much of the 20th century. But somewhere along the way, we stopped investing in ourselves, investing in our people.
It goes on in this vein, frequently comparing the United States’ achievements in education and other areas unfavorably with other countries’. None of this is wrong. It is also … not very fun for Americans drunk on the story of their own exceptionalism to hear. And it must be said that the nostalgia for a lost and better America embedded in this speech is—strangely—reminiscent of Trump’s. Their respective solutions differ; one is a complicated but tentative plan for the literal rebuilding of an ailing nation, while the other promises revanchist restorations of cultural supremacy. The latter is more frightening to hear to many, but the former is harder to listen to. And Biden needs people to listen to him if he’s going to convince voters that Democrats have done what they seem like they might finally actually do: pass trillions of dollars’ worth of legislation that will materially improve this country. The president’s messaging is stuck in a black hole. His party’s hopes depend on his ability to break out.