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Biden’s acceptance speech: Watch for four things

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In 2008, Barack Obama opened his acceptance speech by calling his choice for vice president “a man at ease with everyone, from world leaders to … the conductors on that Amtrak train he takes home every night.” 

Now it is that man’s turn to win the nation’s attention. How will Joe Biden do? How much will it matter?

Fair questions. After accepting a nomination, presidential candidates usually get a bump in the polls as undecideds make up their minds. But October 2016 saw 21 percent of voters still undecided. With COVID-19 killing over a thousand Americans each day, polls now show Biden 7 to 10 points ahead of President Trump — and just 5 percent undecided.  

Who’s left to convince? 

Biden knows the answer: He started his first Senate race 30 points behind and won by half a percentage point, so he knows how fast races can change. Besides, Donald Trump’s campaign is awash with cash, will benefit from the Electoral College and turnout by passionate supporters, while Biden’s are lukewarm — two-thirds say their main goal is not electing Biden but ousting Trump. So Biden’s acceptance speech matters. 

Last week he gave listeners a clue to how well he’ll do. His first appearance with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) showed he understood the need for someone skillful in the campaign attack-role of a Veep. His willingness to forgive her primary debate attacks on him made clear that behind his genial manner lurks a canny politician. We also saw him smooth, colloquial and energetic in his own smartly written speech. 

An acceptance speech is more complicated. Will he do well Thursday night? Watch for four signs:

Does he use “story”? Biden needs to move us. In speeches, “story” puts a human face on problems. That’s why, at the 1976 Democratic convention, Jimmy Carter recalled listening as a boy on a “battery radio” to far-off convention speeches. It’s why Sarah Palin, in her 2008 convention speech, portrayed John McCain as flashing a thumbs-up after being tortured in Hanoi. And it’s why Biden, in 2012, moved listeners with a story of being a “young kid in third grade” when his father told him the crushing news that they would move to Delaware where there were “good jobs.” Storytelling is a Biden strength. He should tell more than one.

Will he decimate his opponent? Politics is a contact sport. Will Biden deliver stinging, concrete reminders of his opponent’s failures? Here, he has lucked out. Besides the pandemic, more than 16 million Americans are out of work, so Biden has a lot of ammunition. 

Still, it isn’t enough to lambaste the other side. Biden has been essentially invisible for months; most Americans are in the dark about what he wants to do. So … 

Does he have a plan? What will he do to fight COVID-19? To create an economy that works? Fight for racial justice? Repair tattered relations around the globe? Stand up to Russia and China? What about fairness in the workplace for women who still make 81 cents for every dollar men make? Will he adopt some of the ideas that Harris had in the primaries? 

Will he make listeners act? Politicians don’t just try to persuade. They want you to jump out of your chair and help. Watch for a call to action using the short words and sentences that now dominate political speech — and to how often he uses repetition, on which speeches thrive. There’s a reason Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” five times. Repetition allows speakers to sweep an audience along with them. Here’s one example:

“… We see a future where everyone, rich and poor, does their part and has a part. A future where we depend more on clean energy from home, and less on oil from abroad. A future where we promote the private sector, not the privileged sector … . ”

Biden should like that kind of rhetoric. It’s from his VP acceptance speech in 2012.

As a speaker, Biden is not without weak spots. He has been fairly criticized for ad-libbed gaffes; he was never commanding in the debates. Too often we still see him looking down at his notes. And as someone who has been caught telling not-quite-true stories, he needs fact-checkers unafraid to challenge him and his writers.

But during those debates, when Democrats fell over each other moving left, Biden was almost alone touting an idea voters seem to crave: working with Republicans to “get things done.”  

Compromise. What an interesting concept! 

Such reasonableness brought Biden’s campaign back to life in South Carolina’s primary, which helped him survive the debates. Now, even with voters over 65, a group Hillary Clinton lost by 7 points, it partly explains why he is neck-and-neck with Trump.   

Many things can change before November. But if we see Biden combine his appeal to moderates with passion, story and energy on Thursday night, he should do well with that undecided 5 percent, Amtrak conductors — and voters in the states they travel through.

Bob Lehrman, chief speechwriter for former vice president Al Gore, teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington. He has authored four novels and thousands of speeches, and given speechwriting workshops around the world. He wrote “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion,” recently released in a second edition, this time with collaborator and co-teacher Eric Schnure. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.

Tags 2020 Democratic convention 2020 presidential campaign Al Gore Barack Obama Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Joe Biden presidential campaign John McCain

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