Biden’s ‘fireside chats’: presidential communication taken from his predecessors?

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On Sunday 7th millions of people around the world gathered in front of their TVs to watch the annual American ritual that is the Super Bowl. International viewers were likely unsurprised by the onslaught of overtly American marketing. But these viewers were perhaps caught off guard when, in the minutes preceding kick-off, they were greeted by President Biden and his wife, Dr Jill Biden. Clad in unmistakably americana pinstripe, Biden delivered an empathetic message to a Covid ravaged nation, doubling down on his strategy to appear more approachable through the use of televised addresses. 

these so-called ‘fireside chats’ quickly revealed an opportunity for the president to sing his praises in front of a large public audience

Not only did the message stick out like a sore thumb to international viewers, who rarely receive the same treatment from their respective heads of states before sporting events, it likely instilled a strange feeling of nostalgia for many American viewers. For the last four years, Donald Trump has largely refrained from any consequential national addresses.

Nationally broadcasted Presidential addresses date back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who frequently employed national radio to update and inform the public about his agenda. Though originally intended to boost morale during the Great Depression, these so-called ‘fireside chats’ quickly revealed an opportunity for the president to sing his praises in front of a large public audience – it became a State of The Union for the masses. Subsequent presidents have mostly followed suit, using national addresses, now broadcast on TV, to reach out to the public. Some, such as George W. Bush’s address following the events of 9/11 served to inform and unify. Others, such as Obama’s address on Health Care or Nixon’s addresses on Watergate served more political means. 

The relevance of such addresses has relied in large part on a sense of personability. Americans knew that this message was coming from the top and that it represented the genuine views of their Commander in Chief. Not so for President Trump. The 45th President’s ten-minute speeches from the Oval Office usually served to elucidate the official line of the White House, after his own intentions had been published in a flurry of posts limited to 280 characters.

Biden, unlike his predecessor, does not appear to be obsessed with his legacy, he should remember that successful presidents are invariably good communicators.

Trump’s twitter activism largely undermined the traditional means of communication available to the White House. They were a constant source of mockery and reproval from news anchors and late-night comedians who bemoaned the ensuing anxiety many felt. Nonetheless, Trump had uncovered a potent political tool, one which had never been exploited to its full extent by the preceding administration. His Twitter posts resonated with those who disliked the impersonal announcements. Indeed, though intended to familiarise the public with the president’s agenda, over the years presidential announcements morphed into scripted political messaging, concocted by Ivy-League-educated aides in offices far away from Main Street. Trump’s tweets, concocted by himself under the cover of his bedsheets, were a refreshing dose of personality for many. 

Though Biden, unlike his predecessor, does not appear to be obsessed with his legacy, he should remember that successful presidents are invariably good communicators. Reagan, Clinton, Kennedy and FDR are all lauded for their ability to reach out to the public, both in person and over the airwaves. Biden’s job will be harder: he is notably lacking in his skills as an orator and faces a much-diversified world of media consumption. If he wishes to recondition Americans’ respect for the office he holds and the policies he pursues, he will need to look beyond scripted addresses. Today’s crowded information atmosphere necessitates a president who utilises the mediums Americans congregate to, all the while walking the line between the braggadocious and the spurious.

Image: Elvert Barnes via Flickr

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