Joe Biden’s Obsessive Search for the Right Words

Kent Nishimura for The Washington Post
People take photos through the White House fence in December.

One day when Jen Psaki was serving as White House press secretary, she was asked to introduce President Biden at a virtual event commemorating Greek Independence Day. It was no big deal, Psaki thought – she would join the Zoom session from her office, briefly discuss her Greek ancestry, then turn it over to the president.

But shortly before the event, she was surprised to receive a summons to the Oval Office. Biden wanted to go over the session – at length. He interrogated Psaki on what she was going to say. He asked how she was going to talk about her family. He told her to be specific about her ancestors.

Biden then personally called the head of a Greek church to get his take on what he himself should say. He phoned a second Greek priest, asking for more advice.

All this for a brief, informal event of the kind that presidents host hundreds of times during their tenure. “It became a longer adventure,” Psaki said, recounting the episode. “It shows how much he cares about every single event and every single interaction he has.”

It also shows, some Biden aides worry, a skewed approach to communication that has hurt his presidency and puts his reelection at risk.

Many Biden aides appreciate his attention to detail and his focus on substance over performance, which they find a welcome contrast to his bombastic, truth-challenged likely opponent, former president Donald Trump.

But they also note that Biden spends an enormous amount of time on speech preparation – far more than his predecessors, scholars and aides say – often holding several lengthy prep sessions even for routine remarks. They typically revolve around a near-obsessive scrutiny of factual details, rather than a rehearsal for soaring delivery or sweeping narrative, aides say. That has produced a speaking style that often fails to connect, polls and interviews suggest, and fuels voters’ concerns about his age.

Few tasks are more important for a president than communicating his vision and agenda. But some allies wonder if Biden attributes a role to presidential addresses that they had decades ago, one that no longer makes sense in an era of social media and snippets endlessly circulated on cable news.

“Biden’s strength is not particularly the big addresses – but they also may mean less than he believes,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “We live in a time when, unless you’re really, really good at it, speeches are less important than spontaneous, viral moments.”

Biden’s recent State of the Union address, for example, lasted more than an hour and was well-received in many quarters. But it was the impromptu viral moments, not the prepared and practiced remarks, that earned Biden the most attention. Those included the occasional stumble, such as Biden’s mispronunciation of a murder victim’s name, as well as a handful of instances when the president deftly parried Republican heckling.

As Biden begins his reelection campaign in earnest, The Washington Post is scrutinizing three pillars of his presidential leadership. Earlier articles examined how Biden absorbs information and how he makes decisions. After those tasks, a final challenge remains, and it is one where even allies fret he often falls short: communicating with the American people.

This series is based on interviews with more than 100 current and former White House staffers, political allies and adversaries, and close friends of the president. The result is a rare portrait of a very private president, based on details and incidents that have not been previously reported. The White House declined to make Biden available for an interview.

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‘That’s a boring speech’

Kendrick Brinson for The Washington Post
People listen as Biden speaks in Atlanta on March 9.

Some critics concede that Biden has on occasion delivered stirring remarks, including a speech on the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks, another on the threat to democracy and a third on the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. His State of the Union addresses have also received praise, even from some conservatives.

For major speeches, Biden often works with Michael Sheehan, a speech coach who has assisted Democratic leaders for decades. He also marks up the text to show where he should take breaks to improve the delivery, a practice he learned to help with his stutter.

But it is the day-to-day speeches – the ones Biden delivers two or three times a week around the country – where he often muddles through, undercuts himself and struggles to connect.

“I know that’s a boring speech,” he once said at the end of a remarks in July 2021 intended to build enthusiasm for his agenda.

Biden focuses so much on the details of each speech that he occasionally changes policy in the course of preparing for it, even when a decision has already been made. “It’s the way he balances alternatives and comes to a point of view,” said Ron Klain, Biden’s first White House chief of staff, who stepped down in early 2023. “Speech prep is the ultimate cauldron in which Biden policy is made.”

But Klain said he found himself wishing that Biden devoted more time to the delivery itself – the cadence, the tone, the rhythm – in a moment when Americans rarely watch an entire speech on television. “Sometimes I think it’s performance that matters more, not the precise words,” Klain said.

Klain would often urge Biden to practice his delivery rather than obsessing over individual words: “Sir, the speech is good. Let’s practice.” Biden would respond: “I’m just not happy with the text yet, Ron. I’m going to work on it more.”

Biden’s approach to speechifying has been shaped in part by his life in the Senate, aides believe, and also by his longtime battle with a childhood stutter, which instilled a habit of refining every word. But the result often seems to exacerbate listeners’ concerns about his age.

In his public remarks, Biden, 81, often grasps for words, ends sentences with an awkward, “Well, anyway,” wanders into murky asides and swerves jarringly from a whisper to a shout. He will apologize for taking too long or for being dry. His supporters may find these quirks endearing, but they are endlessly replayed by his opponents to sometimes devastating effect.

As his likely rematch with Trump ramps up, Biden seems convinced that if he can just convey what he has done – creating jobs, rebuilding global alliances, tackling racial inequality – voters will rally around and give him a second term.

A 2022 speech in Portsmouth, N.H., provides a window.

The picturesque coastal town was getting $1.6 million to expand a “turning basin” in the Piscataqua River that would make it easier and cheaper for ships to navigate. A few days before his appearance, Biden sat behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office firing highly technical questions at his aides.

“How long is the turning basin now?” he demanded, according to someone familiar with the session, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. “How long is it going to be? How does that change the flow of ships? What kind of ships are there now? How much does it cost for a ship to dock?”

And finally, “How much does the average New Hampshire or Maine resident save on the cost of heating oil if ships can move in and out quicker?”

After years of sitting through Biden speech preps, staffers had some of the answers but had to scramble for others. It is a rare Biden speech prep that concludes without someone scurrying to a phone to check a story or track down a detail, said one aide, who compared preparing the president for a speech to the “scariest college seminar you could ever attend.”

When Biden ultimately delivered his remarks, on a blustery April afternoon on the edge of the Piscataqua, he focused on how the money would help the locals. “When you keep a ship in dock after the cargo has been delivered, it can cost $90,000 a day when that ship is in port,” Biden explained. “And those costs get paid on – get passed on to you, consumers.”

The speech drew positive coverage in Portsmouth, but Biden’s lack of attention to delivery was apparent as he meandered into asides such as this one on the importance of infrastructure: “You know, I was – when I was doing the Recovery Act in our last administration – Obama-Biden – I was in Pittsburgh – excuse me, in Pennsylvania, in western Pennsylvania, in a small town. And in the process, I looked at a bridge, and they couldn’t – their fire department was on one side of the bridge, and, literally, from here to that holding tank outside here, was – on the other side there was a shopping center and a school. Well, guess what? Their fire – you couldn’t get across the bridge.”

In more than 50 years as a politician, Biden has rarely distinguished himself as an orator. The fight to overcome his childhood stutter led a young Biden to recite Irish poetry for hours in front of a mirror. Biden regularly downplays the speech disorder, but aides acknowledge it can resurface even now, leading to small but noticeable verbal glitches. Trump has taken to mocking the stutter in his own often-meandering appearances.

“It is still there every once in a while,” said Sheehan, the speech coach who has worked with Biden since the early 2000s and who also has a stutter. “He just has that slippery stammer at the beginning of a phrase, and it comes out of nowhere.”

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‘Call your mother’

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Biden delivers his State of the Union address March 7.

As a politician, Biden has always relished intimate conversations – comforting bereaved families, engaging in long conversations on a rope line, calling someone’s mother for her birthday – more than grand oratory. He has never matched the eloquence of predecessors such as Obama, who rose to national prominence with an electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, or Bill Clinton, who blended folksiness with soaring language, or John F. Kennedy, who asked Americans what they could do for their country.

Biden does not prepare for speeches like them, either. He does not edit in longhand or write first drafts by hand, like Obama. Despite firing back at Republicans during the State of the Union, he never really wings it like Clinton sometimes did, most famously during an address to Congress in 1993 when the wrong speech was loaded into his teleprompter.

Biden approaches speeches more as if he were preparing a PowerPoint. He gathers his closest aides in the Oval Office, including a speechwriter with a laptop. Then he reviews the speech word by word, making changes as he goes.

He often instructs aides that his onetime neighbors in Scranton, Pa., must be able to understand what he’s saying. During a prep session for his speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Biden called over a nearby security guard to ask if a particular passage made sense to him, according to an aide who witnessed the exchange.

He prides himself on his ability to connect with average Americans and loathes anything he considers Washington-speak. He despises acronyms, especially for government agencies. (NASA is an exception, aides say, because Biden recognizes that is how most Americans know it.)

If aides protest that he is dumbing down his message, Biden will issue a challenge. “Get your cellphone, and call your mother,” he will say. “If she understands it, you’re right and I’m wrong. If she doesn’t, I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Even with this focus on relatability, Biden’s speeches can come off as long-winded – possibly because of his three decades in the Senate, an institution that values lengthy, self-important oratory. “Understandably, there is still a lot of Senate in his speaking,” Sheehan said.

And he still references parliamentary procedure. He often calls for a “point of personal privilege,” as he did during a global infrastructure forum in New Delhi in September and during a roundtable with Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, and Jewish community leaders at the White House in October.

Some Democrats worry that it is not just Biden but also his closest advisers, many of whom are from the same generation, who have been slow to embrace Instagram, TikTok and similar venues that are now the way most Americans communicate.

Mike Donilon, a senior adviser to Biden, once marveled to aides about how many people had viewed a 30-second Instagram reel of Biden delivering remarks. After the president’s speeches, aides will tell him how many television networks carried his speech live, though staffers say the president also receives reports on digital engagement.

White House officials say they make a concerted effort to share the president’s speeches across platforms, citing their decision to live-stream his last State of the Union address on Instagram and to host digital influencers and creators at the White House to brief them on the president’s remarks.

From the moment Biden launched his 2020 campaign, he has defined himself in large part as the antithesis of Trump. As part of that, he has often talked of the resonance of a president’s words, castigating his predecessor for repeatedly uttering falsehoods and speaking disparagingly or cruelly about others.

“The words of a president matter,” Biden has said more than once. “They can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace.”

His preparation grows out of that belief. For some advisers, though, he sometimes takes it too far.

In late August 2022, two days before Biden was slated to give a speech on the winners of a $1 billion grant competition, aides gathered in the Oval Office.

To set the tone, the president launched into an extended hypothetical: Let’s say a man gets a call from his wife asking him to pick up milk. During the 10-minute drive to the store, he hears on the radio that his town is getting $150 million from the federal government for economic development. “That’s a lot of money,” the man might think skeptically, Biden said.

But if the man instead hears that the decrepit, long-abandoned warehouse on 5th and Main will be turned into a brand-new training center where 300 people will get new jobs, he will get excited about the expenditure, the president said.

His aides got the message. In the speech two days later, Biden went into great detail about the $44 million grant to the BioFabrication Cluster, which will produce and distribute regenerative tissues in Manchester, N.H.

“Right now, the 100,000-square-foot mill building is empty and idle – but not for long,” Biden said. “Because of this grant, a coalition of city leaders and research and community organizations is going to transform that old mill into a modern marvel. It’s going to house advanced science labs that are going to conduct groundbreaking clinical trials.”

But partway through his comments, Biden found himself referring to comments by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Except she had not spoken yet.

“And as Secretary Raimondo just said – and I guess I wasn’t supposed to start this off, was I?” Biden said. “Come to think of it, all of a sudden, it dawned on me: I was supposed to let her speak first.”