President Joe Biden had a difficult job to do in his speech on Tuesday afternoon.
He had to urge action on the omicron variant without sparking panic; show that his administration is taking action on the latest COVID-19 variant without making it seem as if it hadn’t done enough so far; and empathize with people who have had enough of the pandemic without sounding pessimistic.
For the most part, he accomplished what he set out to do. As always, we shouldn’t put too much weight on presidential speeches. They don’t change votes in Congress. They don’t make the president more or less popular. They are, however, part of how presidents do representation — which involves constantly making promises to constituents and then explaining government actions in the context of those promises. For that, style and substance both matter.
Biden’s biggest policy promise during the 2020 campaign was perhaps his vow to attack COVID-19 in a professional and competent way, and that this would have results. So the president’s emphasis throughout his speech was that while omicron is a very serious challenge, “we’re tougher” — and the nation has made enormous progress since March 2020.
This framing allowed him to be surprisingly upbeat while still acknowledging that things may be very bad very soon. He emphasized how things are different: there’s the vaccine, and more preparation and better information about how to cope with it all. As a result, he said, schools and businesses shouldn’t have to close. And hospitals should be able to handle the coming overflows — at least with the federal government help he also promised.
Biden also used his presidential pulpit to frame vaccinations as patriotic actions, urging everyone to do their part and that meant getting boosters, too. He closed by thanking the American people for everything they’ve done to fight against the pandemic.
Of course, he also talked about things his administration has done, but most of that was relatively low-key. He balanced it by crediting Donald Trump’s administration for working to get the vaccines ready — and he pointed out that both he and Trump have been boosted.
Of course, that still left some questions, and Biden was pressed by reporters on the testing shortages he now pledges to overcome, and he had no particularly strong answer for why the problems persist. He and the administration also have been far from clear about what counts as “fully vaccinated,” and his speech only conflated the issue further. That’s a big deal: When Biden says it’s safe for those who are fully vaccinated to (say) enjoy Christmas together, no one should need to seek more information about whether they qualify or not.
Biden’s choice to take questions was a curious one. Given the news of the last two days, it’s not surprising that the press corps quickly moved to Build Back Better and Biden’s relationship with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Halfway through the second or third answer, Biden seemed to realize that and cut the whole thing off.
That said, it’s always good to see the president taking questions. Biden seems to like giving speeches with the White House press corps as an audience rather than (as presidents once did) separate Oval Office addresses and news conferences as much as possible, allowing the president more control of the headlines from the prepared speech.
Once again: What matters for 2022 and 2024, and what matters in terms of people’s day-to-day lives, are the eventual outcomes, not what the president says and how he says it, and sometimes not even the actions the president takes. After all, right now what may matter most are the properties of the omicron variant.
But speeches can still affect the president’s influence. So while Biden is never going to be as good at performing prepared remarks as Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan, he is skilled at making good use of these occasions, and Tuesday’s speech accomplished what he set out to do.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote
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