CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. – Even President Joe Biden thought he had been ponderous.
“I know that’s a boring speech,” the 46th president said at the end of 31 minutes and 19 seconds filled with statistics (2,374 Illinois bridges), academic studies (on-site child care increases productivity), global gross domestic product comparisons (China used to be No. 9, but is now No. 2) and predictions of 7.4% economic growth (though “the OECD thinks it could be higher,” Biden noted, referring to the not exactly electrifying Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)
The president’s remarks Wednesday, delivered to a friendly and respectful crowd of supporters at McHenry County College in this Chicago suburb, even included “reconciliation,” which Biden quickly admitted was a “fancy” Washington word.
As the president travels the country pitching his plan for spending trillions of dollars to reshape the American economy, he is facing a rhetorical reality that has long plagued many of his predecessors: There is a vast difference between explaining and inspiring, and Biden – who was recently called the “explainer in chief” by his press secretary – often struggles to reach the potential oratorical heights of the office he holds.
Biden’s ambitions are vast and the substance of his presidency has been dramatic at times: an end to the nation’s longest war, a historic focus on equity and spending proposals bigger than anything before. He sometimes describes his agenda as a way to prove that the very concept of democracy itself can deliver for the people.
The White House is perfectly fine with Biden’s ability to turn down the political heat in Washington after four years of chaotic governance. But like former Presidents Barack Obama, who once delivered a 17-minute answer to a health care question, and Bill Clinton, who was forced to apologize to a late night comic for a dreadful convention speech, Biden can sometimes get lost in the minutiae.
To be sure, the details of governing are mind-numbingly tedious. But when the president starts a speech, what can seem like high-stakes drama to those inside the Washington Beltway often feels like the stuff of PBS documentaries to the rest of the country.
“There’s a loophole in the system called stepped up basis,” Biden explained in excruciating detail Wednesday, laying out the case of a wealthy person who owes taxes on the sale of a stock. “If on the way to cash it in I get hit by a truck, God forbid, and died, it was left to my daughter, there would be no tax paid. It’s not inheritance tax. It was a tax due 10 seconds earlier!”
If it was hard for the audience to follow – the students and faculty at McHenry sat silently most of the time – the details in Biden’s speeches often trip him up as well, leading to mumbles, stumbles, pauses and real-time corrections as he struggles through the dense material on the teleprompter.
“We closed that loophole, and that saves us $400 billion a year – not a year – $400 billion over this period,” Biden said as he fought his way to the end of his lecture on the stepped-up basis loophole.
The president is not always boring. His passion and empathy can show through in his remarks, often punctuated by his trademark whisper for emphasis. And sometimes, the topic is just inherently compelling, as was the case Thursday when he defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war.
In that speech, Biden spoke in powerful terms about the war’s place in the arc of history, declaring that “the United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to a world as it was 20 years ago.”
There were few such moments in Illinois. But the president is not alone in finding it difficult to always deliver inspiring prose.
Obama’s discursive, 17-minute answer came during a health care town hall in 2010.
As The Washington Post reported, Obama “wandered from topic to topic, including commentary on the deficit, pay-as-you-go rules passed by Congress, Congressional Budget Office reports on Medicare waste, COBRA coverage, the Recovery Act and Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (he referred to this last item by its inside-the-Beltway name, ‘F-Map’).”
The lengthy answer prompted Obama to apologize to the audience at the end. “Boy, that was a long answer,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Clinton was famous for boring speeches, too, delivering an hour-plus State of the Union address in 1994 that was the longest since one by Lyndon Johnson. And Clinton’s speech at the 1988 Democratic convention to nominate Michael Dukakis for president was so long and awful – as he later conceded – that Clinton appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” to apologize for it.
“It just didn’t work. I mean, I know, what can I tell you?” Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, said after Carson put an hourglass on the edge of his desk when the young politician started speaking. “My sole goal was achieved,” Clinton joked. “I wanted so badly to make sure Michael Dukakis was great, and I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”
But even compared with previous presidents, Biden has a long history of being long-winded.
He developed that skill in the Senate, where the idea of a political filibuster is not only a literal legislative tool but a political advantage for those – like Biden – who were good at talking, and talking, and talking.
In 2006, a New York Times reporter described Biden’s interrogation of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to be a Supreme Court justice.
“The highest ratio of words per panelist to words per nominee was that of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who managed to ask five questions in his 30-minute time allotment,” the reporter wrote.
Biden, the reporter added, “dived into a soliloquy on Judge Alito’s failure to recuse himself from cases involving the Vanguard mutual fund company, which managed the judge’s investments. After 2 minutes 50 seconds – short for the senator – Mr. Biden did appear to veer toward a question, but abandoned it to cite Judge Alito’s membership in a conservative Princeton alumni group. Mr. Biden discoursed on that for a moment, then interrupted himself with an aside about his son who ‘ended up going to that other university, the University of Pennsylvania.’”
In Washington, criticism most often comes from across the political aisle. But on the subject of Biden’s penchant for pontificating, even his closest allies have been known to notice.
During one hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2005, Obama, then a young senator, grew exasperated during a lengthy monologue by Biden, then the panel’s top Democrat.
“Shoot. Me. Now,” Obama wrote to an aide as Biden spoke.
The tendency toward long, detailed speeches did not fade as vice president. And as a candidate for president, Biden was sometimes criticized for not putting on display the same kind of powerful performances that his rivals did.
Nowhere was that contrast more striking than with former President Donald Trump, whose bellicose, rambling, he-could-say-anything speeches were just as long – if not longer – than Biden’s but were rarely boring in the traditional sense. (In 2016, as a candidate, Trump ejected a MAGA-hat-wearing supporter who had the temerity to stand up during a speech and declare, “This is boring!”)
Voters, it seems, decided to choose boring over bombast. And for that, Biden and his White House advisers make no apology.
In fact, even after acknowledging that his speech Wednesday had been less than enthralling – even to him – Biden offered another admonition to the audience in the room, and those watching on television.
It might have been a boring speech, he said, “but it’s an important speech.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.