It is hard enough to simultaneously address a TV audience of millions and an in-person group of several hundred and keep both engaged with your speech. It is even more difficult when the in-person group is in a large room like a chamber of Congress built to accommodate as many as 1,400, but only 200 are on hand.
But President Joe Biden managed to hit just the right personal tone to do just that Wednesday night in a speech to a joint session of Congress as he outlined his accomplishments in the first 100 days of his administration and delineated an agenda that if realized will put him in league with Lyndon Johnson, if not Franklin Roosevelt.
There was some deft phrasemaking in the speech. He noted that he had promised 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days, but had actually more than doubled that with 220 million vaccinations. That’s an impressive statistic. But statistics are generally cold. So, Biden put some flesh and blood on them by explaining how the accelerated campaign resulted in more “parents and grandparents hugging children and grandchildren instead of pressing hands against windows to say goodbye.”
For me the phrase called to mind images burned into many of our memories of Americans looking at loved ones on screens or through panes of glass, being unable to hold their hands as they died of COVID-19.
Another vivid image that he used to talk about the economic impact of COVID-19 and the relief his administration provided was that of “cars lined up for miles waiting for a box of food to be put in their trunks.” The images had rocked me as well when I first saw them on TV.
“I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d see that in America,” he added, seeming to address viewers like me as well as those members of Congress in the room.
Biden used direct address to make sure the TV audience was never left out. As the president talked about how his infrastructure and climate plans would create jobs for Americans (and he talked a lot about jobs), he said: “I know some of you at home are wondering if these jobs are for you. I want to speak directly to you: My American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America. Wall Street didn’t build America. The middle class did. And unions built the middle class.”
In terms of media performance, what struck me was how quietly Biden spoke through much of the speech. He is at his best when he speaks one-on-one to a camera in a low, earnest, intimate voice, sometimes husky with emotion. But you can’t do that when you are in a room with 200 people.
But Biden managed to thread the needle by using eye movement and pauses to hold the room while speaking in a voice only slightly larger than his more intimate one. Indeed, he amplified his voice when he hit an important point or was reacting to applause. But, in the main Wednesday night, he seemed to be personally addressing the TV audience rather than just the room. It was a triumph of tone.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.