My internet connection came back about an hour before President Biden’s speech last night, so I was able to watch it on the TV rather than listen to it on the radio, like I was planning to. But in a way, I could have listened to it on the old Atwater-Kent because a lot of it harked back to the kind of speech that would have been given by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
No, I wasn’t around for FDR and his transformational plans and the New Deal; perhaps the closest I come would be Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society ideas such as Medicare, Head Start, and the civil rights legislation. But last night President Biden brought back the sweeping ideas of his predecessors, proposing spending on programs that will help every American and their children. Those along with his proposed investments in infrastructure and the foundations of what our country is built on are markedly different than plans put forward by recent Democratic presidents. To counter both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the era of big government is back, and government can be a part of the solution.
What a lot of people, including myself, didn’t expect was to see this kind of fire and passion from Joe Biden.
I didn’t have great expectations for tonight’s speech because political events seldom turn on speeches. Nor is speechifying Biden’s forte. He’s workmanlike, solid. But he’s no great orator. That’s Barack Obama.
But I saw an extraordinarily effective speech. Like so much with Biden he managed to find in the historical moment things that play to his strengths. I’ve been watching State of the Union addresses for forty-plus years and I have never seen one like this. Biden delivered it with a tremendous informality. Biden is no Obama when it comes to oratory. But Obama couldn’t have delivered this speech. It would not play to his skills which are heroic and oratorical rather than empathic and conversational.
I’m curious how many times Biden departed from the prepared text. Because the delivery at least was deeply conversational. It frequently read like he was having a conversation with the people in the chamber and then, metaphorically at least, with the country at large. Perhaps it was just written to fall easily into Biden’s conversational style. But it had an informality and conversational tone that I haven’t seen any other President even attempt. It worked.
Biden continues to be blessed by the fact that late in life he rendezvoused with a political moment in which his personality and style, at other times a curiosities or even an obstacles, were uniquely suited to the moment.
Altogether, it was a powerful speech, potent in many ways because it was so understated, casual and conversational. Biden continues to bet big and in the strange alchemy of the moment, where essential elements of his public character seem to match the trauma of the moment, it seems to be working.
As we say in theatre, timing is everything. Had Joe Biden succeeded Barack Obama, I doubt that we would have seen such a dynamic attempt to change the direction and agenda of the country. That’s because we wouldn’t have to; the Obama administration didn’t leave the carnage of divisiveness and corruption of Biden’s predecessor. Any president who came after that would have to have taken such bold steps to stop the death spiral.
Franklin Roosevelt famously noted that “this generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” That challenge is true for just about every generation: what choices we make for our future, our posterity, and our succeeding generations. President Biden took that challenge and made it ours. Now it is up to us to follow his lead.