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Biden Is Flailing, Literally and Figuratively


After

Joe Biden

bitterly attacked

Donald Trump

only days before the inauguration, I urged the president-elect on these pages to follow

Ronald Reagan’s

model by rising above intemperate remarks. Mr. Biden could “be the one who isn’t petty, small and spiteful. He can stay out of squabbles, be a statesman, show honor, demonstrate how someone truly worthy of the office behaves.”

A year later, he has failed to meet that standard. Worse, President Biden appears bizarrely determined—as he did in Georgia last week—to rupture goodwill among his fellow citizens by descending to lower levels of anger and deceit. He apparently doesn’t see that his embrace of rancor and division has contributed to the 30-point collapse in his approval ratings.

When Reagan presented policy initiatives weeks after taking office in 1981, there was plenty of blame to lay on

Jimmy Carter

for what Reagan called “the worst economic mess since the Great Depression.” But in two major economic addresses—on nationwide television and before a joint session of Congress—not once did Reagan refer to his predecessor.

Instead, in a spirit of unity, he said: “To the Congress of the United States, I extend my hand in cooperation, and I believe we can go forward in a bipartisan manner.” And: “I don’t want it to be simply the plan of my administration. I’m here tonight to ask you to join me in making it our plan.” Mr. Biden could richly benefit from these worthy examples.

The Atlanta speech’s baiting of Republican senators as aspiring Bull Connors was not only a perversion of American rhetoric. Mr. Biden’s stage theatrics magnified the negative effects of his message and muddled his mission. His staff won’t tell him, nor will his media sycophants, but it’s obvious that when the president pounds on the lectern and flails his arms, the overstated drama deprives his communication of any authenticity. It seems as if there are a director’s cues in his text: “It’s time to raise your voice, Mr. President. It’s time to slam your hand down.” If the honest ghost of Joe Biden spoke to President Biden, he would say, “C’mon man!”

Mr. Biden desperately needs to sell his policies better, starting with occasionally dumping the teleprompter. With his head bobbing back and forth at outdoor events, or looking glazed into the camera, he’s conspicuously reading scripts from the prompter. In these staged settings, the president can’t help himself—chopping his arms to make his points, or raising them in a scolding fashion. These contrived and exaggerated hand and arm gestures, along with his pitched voice, exhibit faux passion. Each moment is more cringeworthy than the next and distracts from his core message.

When Reagan shouted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” it wasn’t accompanied by a fist pump. There was no teleprompter; Reagan simply looked up from his text to face the audience and, mythically, into Gorbachev’s eyes. That was his trait on the campaign trail; even with the most heated of rhetoric, he didn’t wave or swing his arms. The rare gesture he used was for a theatric purpose for which he was well-trained, which Mr. Biden is not.

It would reward the president to dial back his body movements along with his overheated language. He will find that calm and reason will get him further than he thinks, and even further than some of us Republicans would like. While current advice, from both left and right, seems to be that the president needs to be “out there more”—interviews, conferences and speeches—it is actually overexposure that has damaged Mr. Biden. It would be to his advantage to get off the stage and put to good use the time between now and the March 1 State of the Union address to create something that truly brings America together.

Americans are asking themselves: Are we better off than we were a year ago? Mr. Biden should ask himself: How is it possible that the Democratic Party, which offered the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society, can’t come up with anything less dopey than Build Back Better? A president who has barely 4 out of 10 Americans approving his job performance, and hovers on the brink of the collapse of his congressional support, should give all of the above serious thought.

Mr. Khachigian was chief speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and practices law in California.

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