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Jonathan Bernstein: The real takeaway from Joe Biden's big speech

Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

Former Vice President Joe Biden went to a church in Delaware on Monday to listen to voices of protest, then gave a speech on Tuesday in Philadelphia about what has happened in the country since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Both appearances told us a lot about what a Biden presidency would look like.

Awhile ago, I called Barack Obama's high school graduation speech "adequate," but I should have said: adequate for Obama, who excels at giving speeches. Biden is not gifted in that way. What he said in Philadelphia will not be remembered. The writing and delivery were choppy, and the combination of the harsh attacks on President Donald Trump, the poetic language about the nation and the pragmatic policy suggestions never really came together.

That's OK. Speeches don't win elections. They don't even win presidential nominations.

If they did, one of the dozen or so Democratic candidates who are better at set-piece speeches than Biden is would be preparing to accept their party's nomination. Politicians such as Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and both Presidents George Bush would never have been nominated.

And as with all electioneering and candidate skills, speeches are more important in the nomination process than they are in the general election, when most voters are mainly influenced by party identification and events than they are by the candidates. This is especially true when it comes to the out-party challenger of a sitting president.

So don't spend much time worrying whether Biden's oratorical performance will hurt his chances of winning.

A candidate's speeches are nevertheless important because campaigning isn't just about winning or losing; it's a crucial part of the process of representation. Presidential candidates make promises, and, if they are elected, they try to keep those promises. What they say on the campaign trail helps determine how they will govern.

Assessing a candidate's promises is more complicated, however, than just going to a checklist of policy positions. That's why high-profile speeches and other highly touted appearances such as Biden's church visit on Monday matter. The policies that a candidate chooses to emphasize in these more prominent settings tend to be what he or she is most likely to care about in office.

Of course, events and political context will matter, too. For example, the attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and the shootings of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook turned gun violence from an Obama platform plank into a top item on his presidential agenda.(1)

On policy, Biden continues to be a mainstream liberal Democrat. He has always been right in the middle of wherever the Democratic Party is, and these days that means he's "moderate" only compared with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party. Biden's party is probably more liberal than it was during Obama's presidency, and he's moved along with it. That was reflected in the proposals he outlined in his Philadelphia speech on criminal justice reform, economic change and Obamacare expansion.

Representation isn't only about policy, however. Politicians running for office also make promises about how they will act -- who they will be -- when elected.

Biden's promise in Philadelphia was that presidents have a "duty to care," and his church visit on Monday demonstrated that listening to the hopes, fears, requests and pain of ordinary citizens would be central to how he would run his presidency. He conveys how his own experience with human suffering -- he lost a wife and child at the beginning of his political career and his son Beau five years ago -- has made him who he is. Even the lesser trauma of his difficulty overcoming stuttering when he was young wound up being central to his identity and to who he would be in the Oval Office.

The other major promise Biden is making, and one that almost anyone running against Trump would make, is a return to normalcy. Biden has an advantage in using this argument, because the two-term vice president and six-term senator who is currently making his third run for the presidency(2) is an established figure on the political scene.

Whatever he may say about change and no matter how far-reaching any of his policy proposals might sound, Biden himself is familiar to everyone who pays close attention to politics and can't help but stand for the political traditions that Donald Trump spends his time upending.

 

Biden in particular doesn't have to spell out that argument explicitly. All he has to do is go about his campaign in a way that any candidate would: talking to voters, giving a speech off a teleprompter without veering into meandering asides, treating other politicians with respect, even bowing his head in prayer -- all things that Trump can't or won't do.

Just on the teleprompter part: Biden botched a couple of words in his Philadelphia speech but, like any normal politician, he went back and gave it correctly. By contrast, at the White House on Monday night, Trump misread "once law and order ... " and wound up doing a riff on how we have "one beautiful law," rather than go back and get it right. His habit is to ad-lib something, no matter how absurd, to avoid admitting a small error.

Everyone knows Biden will commit far more gaffes than most presidents, but he won't find demeaning nicknames for Republican House and Senate leaders, or spend most days watching cable news, or hire unqualified relatives for key White House staff positions.

In other words, he's promising to be a normal president who takes a "duty to care" seriously, and to be a pretty liberal leader on policy. If he wins, that's probably what we'll get.

(1) The 2010 elections produced a Republican-majority House that shifted Obama's priorities toward what would be possible given the congressional situation.

(2) And it's his fifth run for national office, and that's not even counting two or three presidential runs that never got beyond the thinking-about-it stage.

About The Writer

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

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