Being boxed-in a godsend for Biden

Being boxed-in a godsend for Biden
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Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders: Reinstating SALT deduction 'sends a terrible, terrible message' GOP braces for wild week with momentous vote Shining a light on COINTELPRO's dangerous legacy MORE works better in a box. And with two weeks of COVID-constrained conventions about to begin, that box has a chance to be his best friend.

We all know the box: It wraps around you during a Zoom meeting, delivers your favorite late-night comics via You Tube, and populates the TV screen hour after hour on cable news. We call the faces in them, derisively, “talking heads,” but thanks to a certain virus, we’re all talking heads now — most notably, Joe Biden.

The former vice president is not a barn-burner as a speaker. He’s not good at delivering a fiery address that excites a packed convention center or enormous outdoor rally. His voice strains; his cadence grows unnatural. Caught up in the moment, he’s prone to gaffs. None of this comes across well, especially on television — and it’s no secret that is partly why Biden failed in two previous attempts to become the Democrats’ presidential nominee.


But he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. The coronavirus has shut down convention halls and confined outdoor rallies. It has put Biden in a box.

Here’s what the box does for him: It plays to his strengths. It allows Biden to speak to voters at eye-level, directly. Yes, by and large he speaks to us from his basement — but in the box, he could just as well be at our kitchen table with a cup of coffee.

Biden is known for his retail politicking, the one-to-one encounter. Perhaps his most effective primary campaign moment came during a CNN town hall in South Carolina. There, in what became a turning point for his candidacy, he bonded with a reverend whose wife was killed in the Charleston church shooting. It was an intimate dialogue about grief and loss.

Ironically, the virtual box and socially-distant basement hand him that intimacy every day, in a digital version of retail campaigning. The close-up framing allows viewers to read his face in detail, as if he were standing in your living room. You don’t get the same connection watching a huge rally, where the speaker isn’t making eye contact but is, instead, playing to a crowd we’re not part of.

Empathy also transmits better inside the box. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonNever underestimate Joe Biden Joe Biden demonstrates public health approach will solve America's ills McAuliffe rising again in Virginia MORE proclaiming “I feel your pain” in his 1992 campaign became something of a late-night one-liner. Joe Biden looking at you through your computer screen, talking in hushed tones about hard times, reads as more authentic.


Over the next four days of a crowd-free Democratic convention, we’ll find out if that box can keep working in front of greater numbers of at-home viewers than Biden has had before. Will he stick with the cyber retail politics that’s worked so far, or gamble on some COVID version of a “big event” that might make him look small?

All of this presents a very different challenge over on the GOP side. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders: Reinstating SALT deduction 'sends a terrible, terrible message' GOP braces for wild week with momentous vote One quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors MORE does not thrive in the box. The polar opposite of a retail politician, the president is most himself surrounded by adoring crowds at sold-out rallies. His campaign essentials — anger, grievance, sarcasm — play best in a wide shot.

But in quiet close-up, absent the cheers, that same content — now unvarnished — loses its blinding sheen. That’s one reason why Trump’s Oval Office coronavirus speech in March came off poorly. The moment required the president to address people at eye-level, using the camera as a window into homes and families. That’s not the modus operandi that favors him, and he knows it.

Conventions typically mark the real beginning of a national campaign. With colorful rallies and grand acceptance speeches that echo across vast arenas, they set the tone — in words and visuals — that carry contenders to November.

Not today.

It’s a cliché: In order to cut through our cluttered media world, candidates are urged to think outside the box. But this year, thinking outside the box may very well mean learning to live and prosper inside the box.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.