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The language of victory: Biden's speech

Joe Biden's first speech as President-elect was a key milestone in the transition of power.

Was it great? Possibly not. Was it coherent and well put together? Yes. Let’s look at why.

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

Evoke the idea of nation

He used the word eight times. Why? A nation is much more prestigious and united than a mere country.

And he finishes with a classic repeated list of three with an introduction.

Let us be the nation that we know we can be.

A nation united. A nation strengthened. A nation healed.

Focus on us and we

Most inaugural and victory speeches emphasise the collective. Here’s Biden:

They have delivered us a clear victory. A convincing victory. A victory for “We the People.”

And to all those who supported us: I am proud of the campaign we built and ran. I am proud of the coalition we put together, the broadest and most diverse in history.

Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Progressives, moderates and conservatives. Young and old. Urban, suburban and rural. Gay, straight, transgender. White. Latino. Asian. Native American.

And we are a good people.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

We’re used to seeing key phrases repeated at the start of sentences to drive a point home. Biden used this three times:

To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.

To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time. The battle to control the virus. The battle to build prosperity. The battle to secure your family’s health care. The battle to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country. The battle to save the climate. The battle to restore decency, defend democracy, and give everybody in this country a fair shot.

We’re always looking ahead. Ahead to an America that’s freer and more just. Ahead to an America that creates jobs with dignity and respect. Ahead to an America that cures disease—like cancer and Alzheimers. Ahead to an America that never leaves anyone behind. Ahead to an America that never gives up, never gives in.

Acknowledge wives and families

As always in American political speeches, they’re ever present. References to being someone’s husband is common. (Gerald Ford’s inaugural address: I am indebted to no man, and only to one woman—my dear wife—as I begin this very difficult job.)

Biden: I’m Jill’s husband. I would not be here without the love and tireless support of Jill, Hunter, Ashley, all of our grandchildren and their spouses, and all our family.

Use wonderful short sentences

Why don’t people present like this? Short sentences are magic. Our audiences take in one idea at a time. They’re engaged. They’re great. Here are some of Biden’s:

My fellow Americans, the people of this nation have spoken. (10 words)

I ran as a proud Democrat. (6 words) I will now be an American president. (7 words)

Kamala, Doug — like it or not — you’re family. (8 words) You’ve become honorary Bidens and there’s no way out. (9 words)

Our work begins with getting Covid under control. (8 words)

It’s a decision. (3 words) It’s a choice we make. (5 words)

I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. (7 words)

Make some contrasts

The speechwriters wouldn’t have earned their pay without them.

Who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States. (A steal from Obama, but why not?)

I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify.

Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. (I suspect our brains go straight from angels to devils – the forces of good and evil – using darkest impulses leads us there anyway without using those specific words. Trump clearly represents our darkest impulses.)

I was waiting for an ABBA sequence and wasn’t disappointed:

And we lead not by the example (A) of our power (B), but by the power (B) of our example. (A)

Give the obligatory history lesson

This is a mainstay of US political victory and inaugural speeches. Obama used the lovely image of 106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper in his 2008 victory speech and the changes she’d seen during her life time.

Biden uses former, mainly Democratic, Presidents:

Lincoln in 1860 — coming to save the Union.

F.D.R. in 1932 — promising a beleaguered country a New Deal.

J.F.K. in 1960 — pledging a New Frontier.

And 12 years ago — when Barack Obama made history — and told us, “Yes, we can.”

No mention of Carter or Clinton.

Ask questions

An absolute mainstay of US political speeches. Ask a question or two and then answer them.

Here’s Biden:

Questions: Now that the campaign is over — what is the people’s will? What is our mandate?

Answer: I believe it is this: Americans have called on us to marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time. (And we’re into the repeated battle list.)

Offer a word about the defeated candidate?

Not a word.

The New York Times is one of many outlets that has the full transcript of the speech.

You can read transcri this version is on Al Jazeera.


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