David Zurawik

Empathy, intimacy and promise of better days ahead a winning combination in Biden speech | COMMENTARY

President Joe Biden successfully combined empathy, intimacy, authenticity and the promise of better days ahead for a winning speech Thursday night from the White House. It was his first prime-time address to the nation as president, as we marked the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 being classified a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Mr. Biden’s great strength is his ability to empathize, a quality in striking opposition to the coldblooded narcissism of his predecessor, Donald Trump. Mr. Biden’s empathy with the victims of the virus and their loved ones dominated the first half of an address as he talked about those who lost their lives and those who survived and now mourn their passing.


In an address that lasted less than 25 minutes, he told the audience that he carries on the back of his daily schedule a notation of the death toll. He reached into his pocket, pulled it out and read Thursday’s tally: 527,726. It was an effective TV choice, which visually showed viewers one of the small but concrete ways he tries to keep his campaign promise to stay totally focused on the victims of the virus as he goes about trying to beat it.

The other TV-friendly choice that he made in the speech involved leaning forward with his elbows on the lectern from which he spoke when he wanted to make a direct plea to viewers through the camera. He pleaded with viewers to get vaccinated and continue to follow best practices like wearing masks.


Standing behind a lectern in the White House is not exactly a setting conducive to intimacy, but Biden seemed so sincere in calling for unity and asking every citizen to join the fight to beat COVID that leaning into the camera worked for him. TV loves the intimacy of one person looking straight into a camera and speaking as if from the heart, and Biden, who is not an especially skilled or slick TV performer otherwise, is great at coming across as sincere and intimate. Remember how well it worked for him in the virtual Democratic National Convention?

Thursday night’s speech marks the launch of a public relations tour by Mr. Biden to sell his COVID relief package, which marks one of the largest efforts to provide a safety net for millions of struggling Americans since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society effort of the 1960s or Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

While it was a short and relatively modest speech, it was an effective one, a convincing and solid start toward the promise of a better or at least kinder America.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email:; Twitter: @davidzurawik