Joe Biden reaches for Barack Obama moment in Philadelphia

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Barack Obama gave his “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia during the throes of his tense 2008 primary against Hillary Clinton, responding to controversy stirred by his then-pastor Jeremiah Wright.

On Tuesday, more than a decade later, Joe Biden came to the city to deliver his own race-centric address as anger and frustration fueled by George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer are vented across the country.

Biden, Obama’s two-term vice president and the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, has struggled to hold the media’s attention during the COVID-19 outbreak. His campaign aides grumble that his attempts at President Trump counterprogramming have been overlooked by cable news networks, including a criminal justice listening session on Monday.

But Tuesday was different. Even Fox News aired Biden’s remarks from Philadelphia City Hall, made during his first trip out of Delaware since the coronavirus-forced lockdowns, after police were aggressive with protesters gathered outside the White House Monday. The White House demonstrations coincided with Trump’s own Rose Garden “law and order” reaction to the unrest set off by another instance of police brutality and racial injustice before he posed for photos in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.

For Tom Schaller, a political science professor with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Biden’s issue driving media coverage has more to do with news values than the candidate, who is working in uncharted political territory.

“The fact that he had to have this formal speech in Philadelphia in order to get live coverage testifies to the fact that he is somewhat being shelved,” he said. “I don’t know how you reverse that given the limitations on communications in a pandemic, not to mention rioting.”

In general, Schaller praised Biden for Tuesday’s address, describing it as equal parts reassuring and unifying, while balancing criticism of Trump with policy prescriptions. Although believing Biden’s rhetoric would appeal to suburban white women, centrists, and independents in the long-run, he suspected it won’t move progressives in the immediate future.

“There are these moments where presidential candidates give these foundational speeches, and I don’t know if that was that today,” he said.

He added, however, that Biden’s remarks were still important because they were his first opportunity to act presidential since becoming the apparent standard-bearer, marked by several news alerts.

“Now, if you’re talking about Obama’s style versus Biden’s style, Obama is a pretty powerful orator. You could argue that he’s stronger in those situations than Biden is, but Biden was okay. It’s a different moment,” Schaller said.

Biden’s bid has been based, for the large part, on his ability to convey empathy, a word parroted relentlessly by his supporters. Republican strategist Susan Del Percio told the Washington Examiner Biden had been searching for a chance to showcase that and other strengths before the protests but had encountered problems piercing through the virus-focused coverage.

“This is where Biden works. This is where the authenticity of him comes through. This is how he basically kicked off his campaign, showing Charlottesville,” she said.

Del Percio called Biden’s message pitch-perfect and a stark contrast to Trump’s by offering “compassion and kindness and inspiration.” Yet parallels can’t be drawn between Biden and Obama, who’s aware he’s at risk of overshadowing his former running mate, she said.

Obama has put out a statement and published an essay about Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died last Monday when Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin pinned him down by the neck for almost nine minutes. Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

“Compare Biden to Obama, I mean, you couldn’t compare the two. But you put Biden next to Trump, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is the voice, the high oratory we’ve been looking for,'” Del Percio said. “At least he understands how to use the English language properly.”

But Del Percio warned Biden not to look as if he’s “trying to capitalize” on the country’s pain. She also reminded him there were going to be many more political developments between now and Nov. 3 and that voters may place more weight on how COVID-19 has hurt the economy closer to Election Day.

“In any other presidential race, it would be tremendous,” she said of the current juncture. “When dealing with Donald Trump, let’s not forget he was impeached, like, six months ago. Yeah, so think about that.”


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