Joe Biden knows how to handle a tough crowd. This was evident last night at the State of the Union, and it was apparent to me seven years ago, on March 20, 2016. On that day, President Barack Obama sent Biden to sell the recently struck Iran nuclear deal to the national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This was the political equivalent of asking the vice president to push New York Times subscriptions at a Donald Trump rally. Over the previous year, AIPAC had spent every ounce of its political capital to oppose Obama’s accord with Iran, which it cast as an existential threat to Israel. Obama, for his part, had implied that opponents of the deal were effectively pro-war. As 18,000 AIPAC delegates converged on Washington, Biden was dispatched to defend the administration to a crowd whose feelings ranged from skeptical to hostile. To call this a thankless task would be to woefully understate the animosity in the arena.
What happened next was remarkable: Biden somehow won over the room. He turned on his well-honed political charm, flattered the audience, and spoke passionately about his personal attachment to Israel, and by the time he got to the unpopular nuclear deal, he had the crowd applauding for it. He exited to a standing ovation.
That same Biden was on full display last night. Not known for the eloquence of his oratory, the president instead spoke conversationally to Congress and the cameras. Folksy rather than formal, and straightforward rather than stentorian, the president exceeded expectations, as even some critics acknowledged. “It was quite effective as a rhetorical ploy,” the conservative Jeffrey Blehar wrote in National Review. “Biden played a losing economic and electoral-polling hand with the public as deftly as possible … by leaning into his retail political skills, 50 years of memorized blue-collar schtick, and the laughter and encouragement of the friendly half of the room.”
Nowhere was Biden’s skill more apparent than in his interactions with those who sought to derail him. At several points during his address, he was confronted by a chorus of hecklers led by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Observing this spectacle, some pundits tut-tutted at the incivility. But Biden seemed to enjoy it. Far from being flustered by the interruptions, he was energized by them. When the hecklers called Biden a “liar” for stating that some Republicans wanted to sunset Social Security and Medicare, he quipped, “I enjoy conversion,” and proceeded to get the entire chamber to applaud for preserving the programs, turning his critics into props in his performance. “We got unanimity!” he crowed. As the chamber clapped, Biden looked presidential at his podium. Greene, shouting ineffectually from the back while draped in an ostentatious white fur coat, looked like she’d just lost her last Dalmatian.
Anyone who witnessed Biden at AIPAC, or in similar situations over his long career, would not have been surprised by his ability to roll with the rhetorical punches. But Biden’s Republican critics clearly did not anticipate his nimble response, for a very simple reason: They continue to underestimate the man they seek to replace.
Since the 2020 Democratic primary, Biden’s secret weapon has been the low expectations set for him by his opponents. Rather than approach him as the flawed but formidable politician that he is, Biden’s critics on the left and right have consistently presented him as a befuddled individual who is unable to finish his sentences. They have cocooned themselves in clips of his gaffes, both real and fabricated, and convinced themselves that the Biden they see in their social-media bubble is the Biden that exists in actuality.
The only problem with this caricature is that it does not survive contact with reality. It’s true that at 80 years old, Biden is no longer as adept an operator as he once was. He speaks slower and struggles more to control his stutter. And of course, he has been prone to comical verbal stumbles his entire career. But Biden’s experience working a crowd, his empathetic human touch, and his sense of humor remain intact. His ability to unite disparate factions of a fractured party remains undiminished. It’s no wonder that a handful of unruly political neophytes at the State of the Union failed to knock him off his game. He’s been playing it for longer than they’ve been alive.
The refusal to acknowledge and contend with Biden’s strengths, not just his weaknesses, continues to hobble his opponents. By consistently lowering the bar for the president’s performance, they have repeatedly enabled him to easily vault over it. As much as anything Biden himself has done, this persistent misapprehension of his capacity has fueled his surprisingly productive presidency.
Consider this history: During the 2020 primary, Biden was dogged by left-wing critiques of his competency. Some supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders pointedly pushed talking points arguing that the former vice president was mentally unfit for office. One candidate, Julián Castro, even wrongly claimed on the debate stage that Biden had forgotten what he’d said several minutes ago. Biden proceeded to sweep the Super Tuesday primaries and claim the Democratic nomination.
And yet, rather than learn from this experience, Biden’s Republican opponents have replicated it, casting the president as a walking vegetable unaware of his surroundings, only to have him upstage them. Maybe Biden isn’t the one who’s forgetting things after all?
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