By Robert Reich
As Republicans squabble, Trump brays, Netanyahu mobilizes a ground invasion of Gaza, and Putin pushes more Russian soldiers to the front lines of Ukraine, President Biden continues to be the one adult in the room.
In response to my article last week about Biden’s leadership, a number of you wondered why he isn’t getting more credit for it.
Granted, polls are meaningless more than a year before an election. Even so, it’s bizarre that Trump — indicted for a rash of felonies, liable for sexual harassment, found to have committed business fraud — has such strong support relative to Biden.
Why don’t voters give Biden more credit?
One theory is that Trump and Fox News have poisoned their minds.
This may be true for some, but I keep coming across self-described Republicans — many of them middle-aged men without college degrees — who don’t particularly like Trump and don’t believe what they see on Fox News.
Yet they’re unimpressed with Biden. They tell me he’s “weak.” They ask questions like, “What has Biden done for me?” or “What’s one way I’m better off because of Joe Biden?”
When I mention some of Biden’s accomplishments — his steady hand in foreign policy, for example, or his creation of tens of thousands of good jobs through investments in wind, solar, electric batteries, infrastructure, and semiconductors — they tell me they didn’t know.
Which brings me to the second theory about why Biden isn’t getting credit: Biden is terrible at “messaging.”
I hear this all the time. “He needs a better ‘message,’” they say, or “He doesn’t know how to get across what he’s accomplished,” or “His speeches are deadly dull.”
I’ve gone back and watched several of Biden’s recent speeches, including last Thursday night’s address to the nation about Israel and Ukraine. His speeches aren’t electrifying, to be sure. But he says what needs to be said. He’s truthful. He doesn’t exaggerate. He’s compassionate.
So why aren’t more people hearing him?
This raises a third theory: Biden doesn’t communicate in ways that today’s media and much of the public are able to hear.
I think there’s a lot to this.
I’m old enough to remember when President Dwight D. Eisenhower talked to the nation. Despite Ike’s flat delivery, which was often punctuated with throat-clearing, the public listened and responded, usually positively, because Americans in the 1950s were able to process non-emotive messages. They might disagree with him, but he gave reasons for what he did or proposed and invited voters to deliberate rationally.
The media of that era felt duty-bound to transmit those non-emotive messages.
By “non-emotive,” I mean messages that are straightforward. They don’t cause the recipient to be entertained or inspired, don’t play on fear or bigotry or any other strong negative emotion.
This is no longer the way the media transmits information or how Americans process it. Now, a message has to pack a wallop to be heard.
Everything Trump says and posts is designed to spur an emotional reaction. His anger, ridicule, and vindictiveness are intended to elicit immediate, passionate responses.
Trump gets attention because the media lives off emotive messaging. The more charged the message, the more likely viewers will stop scrolling. The fiercer the words, the more likely readers will take notice.
Joe Biden still lives in the world of rational, non-emotive messaging. He has been in politics for 50 years. He is steeped in rational, conventional argument — the kind Dwight Eisenhower delivered.
When it comes to “messaging” about his accomplishments, neither Biden nor his surrogates do the emotive work that our media ecosystem demands and the American public is now primed to respond to.
When voters tell pollsters they think Trump is “stronger” than Biden on foreign policy or the economy, the “strength” they feel comes from the emotions Trump stirs up — rage, ferocity, vindictiveness, and anger. These emotions are connected to brute strength.
Biden projects strength the old-fashioned way — through mature and responsible leadership. But mature and responsible leadership doesn’t break through today’s media and reach today’s public nearly as well as brute strength.
So what’s the answer? Not for Biden (or his Democratic allies and surrogates) to abandon facts, data, analysis, and reasoned argument.
The best response is to draw the starkest possible contrast between Trump’s unhinged childishness and Biden’s competent adulthood.
Rather than sell Biden’s policies, sell Biden’s character. Rather than dispute Trump’s arguments, condemn his temperament.
And ask Americans the following question: Do they want a wild child at the helm again, or a grown-up?
The article was published at Robert Reich’s Substack