Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
As the House Sergeant of Arms cries “Madam Speaker, the President of the United States,” Joe Biden can walk to the rostrum confident of one thing: His first address to Congress will represent a break from what Americans have experienced over the past four years.
In his speeches to joint sessions of Congress, former President Donald Trump could – and did – bring us elements of rhetoric and stagecraft best left behind. He punctuated his addresses with chin-juts and joined in applauding for himself. In 2020, he stopped in the middle of the State of the Union Address to ask the first lady, who was seated in the House balcony, to hang the Medal of Freedom around the neck of late conservative radio host, Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh, who, to quote New York magazine, “Taught Republicans to love an angry racist bully” used name-calling, misogyny, and lies delivered by the bushel to bring himself both wealth and power. Given how Trump followed the same playbook to reach the White House, you might say that in the medal moment, the President honored a mentor. In his speech that followed, he mixed outright lies, distortions, and yes, some facts, in a way that may have shown he had surpassed the master.
Among the lies and distortions Trump offered Congress in 2020 were claims that he had ushered in an era of energy independence, set a record for confirmed judicial appointments, and brought about the first drop in prescription drug prices since 1969. He falsely said he had delivered the biggest tax cut in history and repeated one of his favorite untruths as he insisted the US economy was “the best it has ever been.” Despite the Washington Post’s accounting showing he had said this hundreds of times before, it was still a lie.
Biden should find it easy to improve on Trump’s record when it comes to accuracy and to avoid the kind of body language that brings on comparisons with fascists. And if he chooses to perform a stunt like Trump’s 2020 Medal of Freedom trick, he could avoid a debacle by selecting someone who has actually contributed to the nation’s well-being. I would suggest Anthony Fauci for such an honor, but given his Fauci’s seriousness and Biden’s apparent desire to bring normalcy back to the presidency, don’t expect this to happen.
Biden’s approach is informed by a lifespan that began in in the FDR era. During his long tenure in the Senate, he had the chance to attend dozens of presidential speeches in Congress and to learn from the likes of great speakers including former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Conversational and warm, Reagan’s style helped him use his 1986 State of the Union address to bind the country together after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. In 1998, Clinton was interrupted for applause 100 times as he focused on the problems of everyday Americans. And Obama was rarely more charming than he was during the optimistic State of the Union address he gave in 2014, where he called for a “year of action” to address America’s problems and moved members of both parties to stand and applaud as he finished with praise for a wounded Army veteran named Cory Remsburg.
Fortunately for Biden, he doesn’t have to radiate Reagan’s warmth, emote at length like Clinton, or match Obama’s ability to inspire. In fact, if those greats offer any lessons to Biden, it’s that he should be true to himself. This means that he should lean on his rhetorical habits, like calling Americans “folks,” and forget about delivering his speech with word-for-word perfection. An unexpected pause here or a mangled word there would only mean that the authentic Biden stands before Congress and the nation.
After such a long public career Biden surely knows who he is. Eight successful Senate elections and two national election wins as Obama’s running mate surely give him confidence that he can connect with people.
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But if he needs another boost, he can reflect on the moment that fully captured Trump’s performance in such situations. It came in 2020 as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seated behind Trump, got sick of tracking the deceptions in the test and ceremoniously tore it up.
When Biden appears before Congress, Pelosi will be looking over his shoulder, too. But as his ally, she’s bound to lead the applause as he continues the main task of his presidency: to return us to normal and help us get over the trauma inflicted by his predecessor.
An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect year for Reagan’s State of the Union address following the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. It was 1986.