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Biden faces media challenge in adapting his TV style to a big room Wednesday night | COMMENTARY

Former vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accepts the Democratic Party nomination for US president during the last day of the Democratic National Convention, being held virtually amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware on August 20, 2020. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **
Former vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accepts the Democratic Party nomination for US president during the last day of the Democratic National Convention, being held virtually amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware on August 20, 2020. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD ** (Olivier Douliery / AFP-Getty Images)

Sincere, empathetic, low key and generally based on factually accurate information, President Joe Biden’s media style could hardly be more opposite than that of his bombastic predecessor, Donald Trump.

Being the opposite of Mr. Trump is surely good enough for some given all the disinformation, lies and discord the former president regularly sowed when he came before a camera or microphone. But as Mr. Biden approaches his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday and the 100-day mark of his presidency on Friday, it seems fair to ask how effective his media style has been.

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Mr. Biden’s greatest media tool has been his ability to create a sense of intimacy and trust by speaking directly and fervently into the eye of camera. In this mode, his voice is soft and sometimes husky with emotion. The style comes across as nothing if not sincere. Mr. Biden and his advisers used it with great success during the 2020 Democratic National Convention, a virtual event because of COVID.

But Mr. Biden will not be able to rely on his mastery of TV intimacy in Wednesday’s address. The room he will be speaking to is too big. And his big voice — the one he reserves for halls, auditoriums and rallies — is generally not as effective as his softer, more intimate TV voice.

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One of the most important things to look for from a media perspective during Mr. Biden’s address to Congress is whether he can master a large enough media voice to sell his very big national agenda. Can he calibrate to the venue and the transformational agenda he is trying to promote? Or, maybe better yet, can he find a more intimate way to come across on the screen even though he is simultaneously standing before and addressing a big room in the Capitol?

Touting recent successes and selling an agenda are what such joint sessions are mainly about. So, viewers can expect to see Mr. Biden reviewing the success of his effort to get COVID vaccines into the arms of Americans. The original goal Mr. Biden’s administration set was to administer 100 million doses in the first 100 days in office. As of Monday, more than 230 million doses were administered, with 96 million people fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Biden also will likely talk about the economy and the effects of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act he signed into law, reminding those in the TV viewing audience about the direct payments they received because of it. Mr. Biden has a positive economic story to tell starting with Mr. Trump’s false claim to voters during the campaign that their individual retirement accounts would be wiped out if Mr. Biden was elected. Such accounts are doing very well, thank you.

In terms of promoting his agenda, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr. Biden will be talking about the proposed American Families Plan with its emphasis on child care, education and paid parental leave.

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Look for the president to also be promoting his $2.3 trillion plan to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure.

That is an agenda nearly as large and transformational as the one Franklin Roosevelt crafted and sold to Congress and the American people during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many historians feel Mr. Roosevelt saved the nation by thinking so big and acting so boldly.

But one of the reasons for Mr. Roosevelt’s success was in his media mastery. Radio, which arrived in American homes in the 1920s was the dominant medium, and Mr. Roosevelt was the first national politician to recognize its ability to reach listeners by going small and speaking to them in a more intimate one-on-one style, much as Mr. Biden does in one-on-one TV settings.

The media world Mr. Biden inherited is infinitely more complicated and challenging than Mr. Roosevelt’s. He will have to thread the needle between the two audiences he faces in the hall and in the homes of America with an army of social media critics weighing in. I am guessing if he decides to choose only one audience in which to focus it will be the people watching on screens at home on the other side of the camera.

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

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