Frank DeFilippo: Politics Is About Connectivity, And Biden’s Speech Made Contact

President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) look on in the House chamber Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

It’s great to once again have a president who can read.

Comparisons suck, to roughly paraphrase Shakespeare. President Biden is no Barack Obama, nor does he need to be. The salient point is that neither is he a Donald Trump, which is important in the battle for literacy in the nation.

We learn by example and experience. Trump was no role model.

Trump could barely pace his tongue through a simple declarative sentence without fumbling, stumbling, tripping over syllables and using his forefinger as a pointer to guide him through the orderly arranged letters of the alphabet to extrude the proper word. Trump couldn’t follow the written word if the text had directional signs. Trump is a textual deviate.

We pause here for an object lesson: Hey, Donald! Honk if you can read this!

By contrast, both Biden’s verbal cues and body language conveyed the message he set out to deliver last week. Every political rubbernecker knows by now that Biden struggled to overcome a childhood stutter.

Occasionally the tic is subtly revealed through a slurred word or a slight acceleration in his speech pattern, as if to get through a sentence in a hurry before a hiccup occurs.

Case in point: On the same day Biden delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress (with most in absentia), Trump was on a Dan Bongino podcast calling out Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) as a “RINO” and a “loser.”

Frank!
Frank A. DeFilippo

Ah, the surreality of the statement. Hogan, a Trump critic, is one of the most popular governors in the country. His approval ratings are in the 70s while Trump never polled above the low 40s. If anybody’s a loser its Trump. Trump has spent his entire life worrying about getting even with people, the sure sign of a chronic loser.

Biden is clearly comfortable in his own skin. Trump wasn’t as president, and isn’t as an electoral reject.

Politics is about connectivity. Biden’s ease as a speaker is that he “chats” or “talks” a speech rather than speaks it, giving the presentation a conversational tone rather than the fusty attitude of a lecture.

Biden looks the part of a president, a medley in shades of blue for his joint session speech, with just the right dimple in his four-in-hand knotted tie over a crisp white shirt. Whereas Trump always looked more upholstered than dressed – poorly-tied and overly long red tie draped over his expansive gut, too-tight shirt collar and ill-fitting jacket rarely buttoned, presumably to allow room for his ample paunch, or to de-emphasize the blubbery bump.

Biden is able to connect with people instinctively. It’s not an acquired taste. It’s part of who and what he is – a hugger, a schmoozer, a backslapper, a fist-bumper, a family man. He’s Amtrak Joe, the average guy who rode the rails to be home every night and waited 50 years to reach his dream of the presidency.

His experience, no doubt, has taught him to let the microphone do the work instead of the voice. There’s no need to shout to make a point. And when he leans in, he’s coming at the audience with soft-spoken familial intimacy, the microphone conveying a genuineness, a Biden trademark that is likely his rendition of a fireside chat.

He comes forward into the ambient sound, shoulders and all, eyes flashing sincerity, and lowers his voice to barely a whisper. The reassuring tone of his voice becomes the message more so than the words themselves. You know the man somehow feels your pain because he’s had enough of his own. Empathy is the hallmark of Biden’s authenticity.

This gesture is more effective with the broad television and radio audience than with the assemblage in the room, as it is intended to be. It is known in the media business as harnessing the audience as a “workforce,” pulling viewers into the message and getting them to resonate along with the speaker.

Simplicity sells.

For if there’s a strategy to Biden’s presidency, it is that the broad constituency of Americans supports his expansive and expensive vision to restore America’s supremacy even if the Republicans in the evenly divided Senate do not. The economic rebound, goosed by huge infusions of cash by the government, is about to make the point as the nation gradually unmasks.

Biden would prefer to work with Republicans but is willing to proceed without them if they won’t. And much of the time they choose not to. Biden’s working theory is: Everybody needs a vaccination. Everybody needs a paycheck. Everybody needs heath care. Everybody needs an education. He’s offering all of the above, and more.

Biden is betting $4 trillion in human and capital investment that people will take a positive view of government and politics (and the Democratic party) if they are healthy, employed, secure and enjoy opportunity. And that’s on top of the $2 trillion that’s already been enacted and distributed.

The word “infrastructure” for Biden means the sum total of everything we use, need, are, and then some, cradle to coffin. And the wealthy will pay for it all. And why not? Eventually they’re the beneficiaries of a skilled and healthy workforce.

Biden’s infrastructure proposal is similar in content, but certainly not in scale, to Maryland’s Capital Budget. Biden wants to spend $2.2 trillion on everything from roads and highways to expanded broadband and an upgrade of the electric grid.

Maryland’s bricks-and-mortar budget is a few zeroes short of that at $2.2 billion, but it covers the range from school construction, community centers, expanded broadband, transportation projects and other incidentals that are important to people and their communities.

Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan is, at heart, a wealth redistribution plan. It inverts the money pyramid by shifting the cost to the wealthy and a piece of the wealth from the old to the young through tax credits for kids along with a free education, from pre-school through community college.

So, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead: “America is on the move again,” Biden declared in his address. “Turning peril into possibility, Crisis into opportunity. Setbacks into strength.”

Biden’s broad reach is being compared to the wholesale approach of FDR and LBJ – those acronymic presidents who faced many of the same obstacles and challenges as Biden inherited when he assumed office little more than 100 days ago, the marker commonly used to measure a president’s ambitions and achievements.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt inherited the Great Depression; Lyndon Baines Johnson was handed a messy unwinnable war and a Civil Rights crisis; and Biden was given the pandemic, a weakened economy with massive unemployment, the racial reckoning and climate change.

Will they soon be joined by a JRB – Joseph Robinette Biden – in the cramped space of headlines?

Biden initially viewed himself as a transitional president who would prepare the nation for the next generation of leaders. But over those 100 days, he has emerged as a transformational president who is attempting to reshape the way America is governed and how it treats those it governs.

Biden also inherited Trump. And much of his busy work has been to undo the wreckage that Trump left behind – the environment, restoring the confidence of America’s allies, the economy, and, foremost, the COVID-19 pandemic that Trump tried to sweep aside and eventually, disastrously, ignored.

Maybe Trump can go back to school and learn to read under Biden’s Family Assistance Program.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.