A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
American presidents have a handful of time-tested ways to break through the daily news media din and make a big statement. An Oval Office address is one way. Wednesday’s format, speaking before Congress, is another. President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress supplies him with a big stage. He will use it to share a “unifying message;” highlight the country’s pandemic response; and spotlight the “second part of his jobs and infrastructure plan,” CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins report.
As with any stage, the visuals are enormously important. Case in point: Right-wing pundits still cite, and condemn, Nancy Pelosi’s highly visible shredding of Donald Trump’s address to Congress in February 2020.
This time, “for the first time in history, a pair of women will be seated on the rostrum” behind Biden – Pelosi and VP Kamala Harris. And the setting for his speech, the House of Representatives chamber, is “where a riot of would-be insurrectionists tried to prevent him from becoming president,” Liptak and Collins noted. “Biden plans to reference both the January 6 riot and the historic tableau behind him during his remarks, according to people familiar with his speech preps…”
A media critic’s POV
“Biden’s greatest media tool has been his ability to create a sense of intimacy and trust by speaking directly and fervently into the eye of camera,” The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik wrote Tuesday. “In this mode, his voice is soft and sometimes husky with emotion. The style comes across as nothing if not sincere.” Zurawik said it worked really well during the 2020 convention.
But Biden “will not be able to rely on his mastery of TV intimacy in Wednesday’s address,” Zurawik observed. “The room he will be speaking to is too big. And his big voice — the one he reserves for halls, auditoriums and rallies — is generally not as effective as his softer, more intimate TV voice.” Zurawik posed this question: Can Biden “find a more intimate way to come across on the screen even though he is simultaneously standing before and addressing a big room in the Capitol?”
A cautionary note
I’m the type of news consumer who’s home on the couch for every State of the Union. But it’s helpful to remember that I’m not the norm. (I’m guessing you are not the norm, either!) Trump’s State of the Union averaged 37 million viewers across 12 TV networks last year, which means most American adults heard the speech later, in bits and pieces, or didn’t hear about it at all. Technically Biden’s speech is an address to a joint session, since it’s his first year as president, so here are this century’s ratings comps: About 48 million viewers for Trump in 2017, 52 million for Barack Obama in 2009, and 40 million for George W. Bush in 2001. Recent TV ratings erosion might make 30 million a more realistic barometer for Biden’s address…
First 100 days
On the subject of Biden’s first 100 days, well, this marker “gets lots of attention but has no actual significance,” as NPR’s Jason Breslow puts it. Re: that attention, newsrooms are rolling out special coverage, including polls, webcasts, and interactive graphics. The 100-day date is on Friday but some of the content is already out…
“Biden’s strategy of boringness”
I read this Jonathan Chait piece in the new print edition of NYMag and found it very much worth sharing. Chait wrote, “Biden has acted as if he decided to slide the presidential public-engagement bar all the way to the bottom and see what happens. In his public communication, he has put forth the most minimal effort that the news media will tolerate without staging a revolt. His interviews are infrequent and mostly news free.” Chait asserted that Biden’s basic statements “seem designed to be ignored. The tedium is the message.” It all reminded me of this Politico headline from last November: “America Votes to Make Politics Boring Again.” Michelle Cottle of the NYT editorial board said it on Tuesday night too: “He’s making the presidency boring again. Mock if you will, but this is a major achievement — one welcomed by many exhausted Americans…”
Here’s a counterargument
“The daily White House briefings now are a snoozefest” and the “rollicking MAGA rallies” are now history, but “does all this mean it’s been a boring presidency? Absolutely not,” the BBC’s North America editor Jon Sopel wrote Tuesday. “This is a far more interesting presidency – so far – than I think any of us had imagined. I would go as far as to say it’s fascinating.” Because it’s ambitious, Sopel wrote. It’s a reassertion of government’s role. It’s not a “made for TV spectacular,” he wrote, but it’s “a mighty gamble…”