Screenshot 2020-01-28 10.31.06Lately, Joe Biden’s language has been under the articulateness microscope.  When there are substantive policies to be debated, why do we hold up articulateness for critique in political discussions? Biden seems competent enough, and experienced. Does it really matter if he is articulate?  Short answer: It depends on what people say about it.

So, let’s take a look:  How are people talking about Biden’s speech?

Joe Biden’s manner of speaking has been called “choppy,” “rambling,” “halting,” and there are plenty examples to illustrate this as noted in this October 2019 New York Times article:

“People are being killed in western, in eastern Afghan — excuse me, in eastern, uh, Ukraine,”

“I would eliminate the capital gains tax — I would raise the capital gains tax”

“So there’s a, there’s — my time up?”

Still, Biden’s popularity has in part been fueled by this choppy, rambling, and halting style, as evidenced by these Iowans quoted in the same article:

“I love it. It appeals to the common people, working class, Americans, everybody!”

“I know he falls over some of his words, we all do.”

“Oh, big deal! He speaks from his heart.”

So, is he speaking poorly? Or is he brilliantly connecting with the common people? As discussed in a previous post, in certain situations inarticulateness can be a form of competence. Until recently, Biden’s choppy and halting delivery—with the occasional profane word thrown in—has worked well for him, projecting a down-to-earth image.  But, the claim that his disfluencies appeal to “the common people, working class, Americans, everybody” may be an overstatement. Even those common people and working-class Americans are starting to get worried about Biden’s disfluencies.  When the New York Times spoke to union leaders in Western Pennsylvania, those hard-working Americans insisted that their priority was to support a candidate who would maintain coal jobs.  Biden was their guy—but they had concerns. Not because he was wavering on his stance on coal and fracking, the issues that most concerned them, but because he didn’t seem very articulate. One of them summed up:

“You know it scares me.  I love Joe Biden, but lately he’s not as articulate. What’s Trump gonna do?”

For these union leaders, being inarticulate has become Joe Biden’s biggest vulnerability.  If Biden couldn’t get the Democratic nomination, some of them were considering voting for Trump and, as union leaders, advising their union members to do the same.

According to some accounts, Biden has been verbally awkward for decades, and for a long time Biden’s gaffes and hesitations, and even his profanity have made him likable.  But the union leaders had a different take for 2020: Right now we don’t need a friendly guy.  We need someone who can challenge Trump.  As the concerned union leader quoted above asked, if we put a hesitating, pausing, mis-speaking Biden on stage with Trump, “What’s Trump gonna do?” (Implied answer: Rip him to shreds). In the context of that discussion, it seems Joe Biden has pushed the limits of competent deployment of “inarticulateness.” If he can’t more seamlessly make his case, he simply won’t be able to stand up to Trump.

Others have discussed this as a problem of age.  He’s just too old to keep up—and his inarticulateness is the primary evidence of this. This argument is made clearly by a New Hampshire voter quoted in this Vox article:

“I don’t think he can take on Trump for that reason. I don’t think Biden is quick enough and sharp enough to take him on. His story is incredible, but he’s just too old.”

Biden’s inarticulateness is increasingly being talked about not as a sign of relatability and political competence, but as a sign of age, incompetence, and inability to beat Trump.  How did that happen?  Did he really start becoming more inarticulate? Is his brain degenerating?

His brain may be degenerating, but let’s be frank: That’s not what matters in this election.

Consider another politician famous for his folksy speech and mannerisms: Ronald Reagan. He was elected twice. Despite an increasingly simple speaking style and decreasing vocabulary during his time in office, citizens deemed his style relatable.  In Reagan’s case, much of his repetition and reliance on stock lines may have been caused by a brain stumbling through the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.  Still he was a successful candidate, winning two terms and then ongoing status as a beloved former President. He was even dubbed, “The Great Communicator.” Why didn’t people focus on his inarticulateness–his slowing of speech, his waning vocabulary (now shown to be empirically measurable)? Because the people discussing his speech didn’t talk about it as a problem.

At one time, that folksy interpretation of Reagan’s speech style was enjoyed by Biden too.  But now the word articulate has come to haunt Biden’s campaign.  As the very different cases of Biden and Reagan suggest, how we perceive someone’s inarticulateness is more a product of a context and everyday conversation than of that individual’s brain–even if the examples of halting speech and bumbling frustration coming from that individual are as real as the recordings replayed again and again on national television.  It’s not the speech itself that’s giving Joe trouble, but the way people talk about it. So, back to our original question: Let’s say Joe Biden is inarticulate.  Does it matter? Not on its own.  But all those people out there discussing Biden’s speaking problems—and the journalists reporting their remarks—are making it matter more and more each day.

Being “articulate” (or not) probably does matter for the success of a presidential candidate.  But how we talk about it is what makes it matter.

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