Rhetorical Recap: You’ve Got a Friend

Obama Endorses Biden: A Video Speech, April 14, 2020

We’ve lost hold of the anchoring and orienting forms by which we connect to politics. Guess who to the rescue, for Democrats at least.

The day after Bernie Sanders endorsed Joe Biden (not the day after he conceded), Obama appeared on social media to do the same. The next day would be Elizabeth Warren’s turn, and the buzz had it that Hillary Clinton was on deck. This quartet conjured up a preview of an online convention. It was the Democratic party’s turning of the corner from the primary to the general election.

Obama opened with uplift. He spoke on behalf of his wife Michelle, a power in her own right. He offered a touch of religion and pirouetted from a sensitive acknowledgement of loneliness into a plainly phrased call for community:

If you have lost somebody to this virus or if someone in your life is sick, or if you are one of the millions suffering economic hardship, please know that you are in our prayers. Please know that you are not alone because now is the time for all of us to help where we can and to be there for each other as neighbors, as co-workers and as fellow citizens. In fact, over the past weeks, we have seen plenty of examples of the kind of courage, kindness and selflessness that we are going to need to get through one of the most difficult times in our history.

Then came the endorsement, emphasizing Biden’s devotion to community values in a series of sentences tying his experience to his empathy:

When Joe talks with parents who have lost their jobs, we hear the son of a man who once knew the pain of having to tell his children that he had lost his. When Joe talks about opportunity for our kids, we hear the young father who took the train home each night so he could tuck his children into bed, and we hear the influence of Jill, a lifelong teacher.

Next, a credentialing of Biden as the right man for these times, recounting his policy chops while Vice-President on today’s biggest issues:

I asked him to implement the Recovery Act, which saved millions of jobs and got people back on their feet, because Joe gets stuff done. Joe helped me manage H1N1 and prevent the Ebola epidemic from becoming the type of pandemic we are seeing now.

Obama tacitly contrasted Biden with Trump and Trump’s White House circule:

I know he will surround himself with good people: experts, scientists, military officials who actually know how to run the government and care about doing a good job running the government and know how to work with our allies and who will always put the American people’s interests above their own.

Obama praised the Democratic field and, uniquely by name, Bernie Sanders, balm for his supporters no doubt. The former president sketched out an agenda that blended his own and Sanders’s positions into a platform preview, and followed up with a chiding of Republicans for being more interested in power than progress.

This was all delivered conversationally. No calls and responses, no “boo” and “cheer” lines, no flights into the upper register for a climax. Obama stayed James Taylor mellow (mellower than the original Carole King version). He did not wear a tie. His head and shoulders filled the frame along with a blurred family room background dominated by a bookcase with lots of tchotchkes on the shelves, including a basketball. You could see he was at home but he alone stayed in focus. He opened with “Hi everybody” and closed, not with “God bless you [beat] and God bless the United States of America,” but with this strenuously substantive yet calmly voiced six-point ask:

So join us. Join Joe. Go to JoeBiden.com right now. Make a plan for how you are going to get involved. Keep taking care of yourself and your families and each other. Keep believing in the possibilities of a better world, and I will see you on the campaign trail as soon as I can. Thanks.

This twelve-minute lower-case political address is a model for how leaders should speak to the general public in terrible and physically distanced times.

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