Give him a hand: Biden ditching lectern for handheld mics

WASHINGTON (AP) — Whenever the president travels, a special bullet-resistant lectern called the “blue goose,” or its smaller cousin “the falcon,” is in tow. Lately, President Joe Biden is rendering them all but obsolete as he increasingly reaches for a hand-held microphone instead.

From casual fundraisers to more formal remarks on disaster response or inflation or the like, Biden has opted for a hand-gripped mic more than a dozen times in recent months — even when he’s standing in front of the fixed double microphones on a presidential-seal-adorned lectern.

Those who know him best say the mic swap makes Biden a much more natural speaker, and he knows it.

There’s an obvious change when he makes the switch. His shoulders relax. A smile spreads across his face. He walks the room, making eye contact.

“There are two tricks to public speaking, and neither is really rocket science, said Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic consultant who’s now executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. “First, you want to be as comfortable as possible. Second, you want to be authentic. And the two go hand in hand.”

Elleithee said one of Biden’s strengths is his authenticity — “love or hate his politics, he’s a real guy who comes across as one. That’s because he’s most comfortable when he’s talking with people, as opposed to talking at them. Standing at a podium is stiff. It’s formal.”

The president, who has acknowledged his difficulties as a public speaker and struggles to overcome a persistent stutter, is often stiff when reading prepared remarks. As a candidate and now as president, he has eschewed the traditional glass-paned teleprompters normally placed just off the corners of the lectern, instead preferring larger teleprompters on television screens.

His public style is meant be everyman, down-to-earth — even folksy — as he works to connect with audiences. He tells dad (or grandpa?) jokes, talks about his parents, his wife, his children, his many years of government experience. But that sense of empathy and connection that he’s able to cultivate in person often doesn’t come through in some of his larger events, nor through the livestream.

The mic, in some ways, is as an attempt to bridge that divide.

Last week, as the president surveyed the hurricane damage in Florida, he spoke at first into the fixed microphones, gripping the sides of the lectern. But midway through his speech he called an audible.

“Let’s see if this thing works, is this one working?” Biden asked as he grabbed on to the hand-held mic. The president then stuck a hand in his pocket and turned toward the crowd as he continued talking about the administration’s disaster response.

Aware of the power of stagecraft, Biden isn’t eschewing the iconic presidential lecterns entirely: They still hold paper copies of his remarks (in case the teleprompters have an error) and often a glass of water. But the built-in microphones are increasingly turned off.

The boxy dark blue and dark paneled lecterns — there are many — are a symbol of the modern presidency.

It’s from behind them that President Bill Clinton said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” President Barack Obama declared that Osama bin Laden had been killed, and Queen Elizabeth II was rendered nearly invisible except for her hat when she was welcomed on the South Lawn by President George H.W. Bush.

Now, when Biden staffers place the leather-bound folder with his written remarks on the lectern, they’re also tucking in the handheld mic.

During his South Lawn celebration for the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden donned his aviators and pulled out the mic on a warm, sunny day.

“With your permission, I’m going to take my coat off,” he told the crowd as he relaxed into the moment. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to speak any longer.” Then he said: “Folks, welcome to the White House, everybody.”

Inevitably, there are times when technology fails him. During a Democratic fundraiser for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the mic feed kept going in and out, making it nearly impossible to hear Biden. But Biden is not deterred.

Delivering remarks recently at the headquarters for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Biden spotted the handheld microphone.

“I’m going to use this” he declared.

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