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Joe Biden needs a new communications strategy

Joe Biden needs a new communications strategy
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On Dec. 14, the day the Electoral College confirmed him as the President-elect, Joe Biden promised Americans to work “just as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did.” It is “now time to turn the page.” Biden said. “To unite. To heal… There’s urgent work in front of us.”

Having refrained from criticizing Republicans who claimed the election was rigged, Biden now declared that President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE had launched “an unprecedented assault on democracy.” Every single legal challenge to the election, he noted, had been “found to be without merit.” Biden blasted the Republican state attorneys general and members of the U.S. House of Representatives who — in endorsing the baseless Texas lawsuit seeking to throw out the presidential election results in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia — refused to “respect the will of the people, refused to accept the rule of law and refused to respect the Constitution.”

On Dec. 15, soon after Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses McConnell: Power-sharing deal can proceed after Manchin, Sinema back filibuster Budowsky: A Biden-McConnell state of emergency summit MORE (R-Ky.) broke his six-week silence and acknowledged Biden’s victory, the President-elect indicated he had had a “good conversation” with the Majority Leader: “I told him although we disagree on a lot of things, there’s things we can work together on.”

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Biden’s mixed messages underscore the communications challenges he faces. He has promised to be a healer, a uniter, a president who — in contrast to his predecessor — reaches across the aisle. However, Biden also knows that hyper-partisanship will not follow Donald Trump to Mar-a-Lago. And he should know that Mitch McConnell will be just as uncooperative as he was when he declared his primary goal was to make Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaInaugural poet Amanda Gorman inks deal with IMG Models Biden knows healing the US means addressing pandemic and economy first Can the media regain credibility under Biden? MORE a one term president.

President Trump’s tweets serve as a reminder that words matter, sometimes as much or more than deeds. To build public support for his policies and convince opponents they will pay a political price for obstruction, President Biden should not hesitate to make bi-partisan appeals and — when appropriate — launch attacks that “name and shame” (but that are not Trumpishly ad hominem). He should express empathy and indignation. Biden should sound like — he should be — the nation’s educator and truth teller in-chief.

Biden's communications strategy should be guided by six core concepts:

  1. Trump and his Republican enablers broke it.
  2. Acting together, we can fix it.
  3. Under-promise.
  4. Over-deliver.
  5. Repetition solidifies support.
  6. You can’t make music if you don’t blow your own horn.

Every time Biden lays out his pandemic plans, he should document that the United States ranks among the world’s worst nations in per capita fatalities. He should remind Americans that President Trump knowingly and willingly lied about the threat the Coronavirus posed and the ease with which it is transmitted; failed to mobilize the resources of the federal government to mitigate its impact; mocked measures (including mask wearing, social distancing, and limitations on large gatherings) recommended by his own public health officials (except for the eminently unqualified Scott AtlasScott AtlasBirx: Someone was delivering a 'parallel set of data' on coronavirus to Trump Overnight Health Care: Trump admin makes changes to speed vaccinations | CDC to order negative tests for international travelers | More lawmakers test positive after Capitol siege Joe Biden needs a new communications strategy MORE) that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives; and then waved the white flag of surrender, declared the Coronavirus was “rounding the corner,” and devoted all his attention to his re-election campaign.

Every time he lays out his plans to address the pandemic-induced recession, Biden should document the severity of the crisis (using aggregate data and personal stories, delivered at Coronavirus briefings by the individuals themselves) and the indispensable role played by the CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, which provided financial support to businesses, unemployed and underemployed individuals and their families.

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He should remind Americans that for over six months, Majority Leader McConnell refused to allow the Senate to consider, let alone vote on, The Heroes Act, passed by the House of Representatives in May, which renewed benefits set to expire; extended a moratorium on evictions and student loan payments; and assisted revenue-starved states and localities, prohibited from running annual deficits, and forced to lay off police officers, fire fighters, teachers, EMTs, and other essential workers.

Biden should explain why the lame-duck session stimulus/recovery package is a woefully inadequate “down payment.” He should alert Americans that for these reasons the recovery will be slower than it might have been. While continuing to assure them that the United States will “build back better.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."