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The 2020 Election: Close-Reading Biden’s First Campaign Ad

Aatif Rashid
Aug 23, 2019 · 6 min read
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Biden’s 2020 campaign is built almost entirely on nostalgia for 2008.

A campaign ad can tell us a lot about a candidate — not about their policies, which can be hard to get across in only sixty seconds, but instead about their aesthetic, the way they present themselves and their campaign, the subtle signifiers meant to appeal to specific voters. In a previous blog post, I close-read each major candidate’s campaign announcement video, and my analysis, I think, pretty accurately summarized each candidate’s style and appeal.

Earlier this week, Joe Biden released his first official campaign ad, and close-reading it can tell us a lot about how he’s framing his campaign four months in and what kind of voters he’s hoping to rely on (specifically old people, in case it wasn’t already clear).

The ad itself is titled “Bones,” a strange choice, perhaps, given that it made me think of a skeleton and reinforced the idea that Biden is a very old man with a somewhat skeletal appearance, folds of skin draped over a set of bones that the DNC is attempting to reanimate — but still, it’s a choice that appeals to Biden’s older voting base, the kinds of people for whom bones signify a sturdiness of belief and who might say things like “I feel it in my bones.”

The ad begins with a shot of an old man (an African American man specifically, subtly calling attention to the fact that Biden is still doing best with that particular demographic, but also, I think, a way of reminding us that he was the VP of the country’s first black president), then a shot of a youngish, ethnically-ambiguous woman (an attempt to pander to millennials perhaps, though one that doesn’t really work), and finally one of an old grizzled-looking white man, with stubble and a hat. Overlaid atop these faces, meanwhile, is the rugged, gravely voice of an old man declaring that “we know in our bones this election is different.”

This gravely old man’s voice, I think, is the key to the whole ad. It’s not Biden’s voice, but it sounds like Biden’s voice — a kind of no-nonsense, down-to-earth, “I’m going to tell it like it is” voice. To a millennial like me, it sounds like the voice-over of a Cialis ad, but to the older voters who Biden is appealing to, it’s their own voice, the voice of a beleaguered baby boomer who’s fed up with this crazy world and who just wants things to go back to normal so they can live out their last years in peace and quiet. It’s the voice, ultimately, of the moderate Democrat.

Then we pivot to images of the white supremacist marchers at Charlottesville from 2017, and then to an image of Donald Trump at one of his rallies, while the voice reminds us of the stakes and the threat. This is a callback in some ways to Biden’s announcement video, where he framed his campaign around the idea of combatting the rise of neo-Nazism and white supremacy, and a reminder of the anomaly of the Trump presidency — an anomaly that Biden will fix. And very quickly, then, the video shifts away from Trump and the Charlottesville marchers and brings us a comforting image of Biden’s head-to-head poll numbers vs Trump, followed by images of Biden shaking hands on the campaign trail — the music picks up at this point too, a positive, upbeat track to signify the optimism that Biden’s candidacy represents.

There’s something about this kind of music that always reminds me of an establishment Democrat candidate. Back in 2016, I wrote about the Democratic National Convention and the terrible music the DNC used for its intro video (“a soundtrack reminiscent of a television ad for a couples’ resort”). Here the music is very similar — a focused-grouped background track that conveys bland optimism, the kind of thing that clearly wasn’t written by a human but instead by a computer algorithm programmed by a group of consultants. It reminds you that this is ultimately a television ad and it makes one think of commercials for other products — and ultimately, isn’t Joe Biden just a product too, designed (like Cialis) to appeal to older consumers? Compare this music choice to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign ad, in which Simon and Garfunkel’s voices took us back to a 1960s optimism — it was music written by real people, and it actually made you feel something.

From here, we move on to the meat of Biden’s ad, or what one might call the “Obama section” — Biden reminds us (in case we forgot) that he was Obama’s Vice President. Specifically, he goes through a few of his and Obama’s signature accomplishments, such as bailing out the auto industry and passing Obamacare, along with a shot of warships on the ocean and photos of Obama and Biden looking serious in cabinet meetings, all to emphasize that Biden will bring back an Obama-style seriousness to the White House and our foreign policy.

What’s key here is that Biden doesn’t frame his campaign by discussing the things he actually wants to do as President, but rather the things he already did while Obama was President — in other words, he’s running his campaign as if he’d already been President once and electing him in 2020 would simply be a restoration, as if he were Charles II and Donald Trump Oliver Cromwell. When Biden does talk about what he wants to do for the country, he sticks with vague ideas like building on Obamacare, investing in schools, “leading” on climate change (whatever that means), and rebuilding our alliances. Once again, notice how he emphasizes elements of Obama’s legacy that he will seek to restore and expand, rather than proposing anything new, such as Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, policies that more progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders are leading with. He even ultimately uses the word “restore,” declaring that he will “restore the soul of the nation.”

Biden’s ad ends with the phrase “strong, steady, stable leadership” — an interesting choice that not only reiterates the central framing of his campaign as a restoration of stability in contrast to our current erratic president (“erratic” was a word the ad used earlier to describe Trump) but also appears to be some kind of damage control. In recent weeks, Biden has committed as series of gaffes, everything from mixing up dates to mixing up people to stumbling through sentences in a manner reminiscent of Trump himself, all of which have led even our Biden-friendly media to question whether his age might be a problem. Thus, the word “stable” feels like his campaign insisting that no he’s not too old and his brain is working just fine.

Ultimately, Biden’s campaign ad is exactly what one would expect — though altogether it feels far less effective than his campaign announcement video. As I discussed before, that video was more thoroughly centered on combatting white supremacy and used imagery associated with the American defeat of Nazism in World War II, which gave Biden’s decision to run a surprising dignity. Here, that dignity has been replaced by pandering to America’s memory of Obama — and while that might work for older and more moderate voters, to me it feels desperate. Obama’s presidency wasn’t perfect, and even more establishment-friendly candidates like Booker and Castro were willing to point out Obama’s flaws in the last debate. More seriously, in a moment when climate change is wreaking very visible havoc on our planet, with Greenland melting and the Amazon burning and temperatures higher than they’ve ever been, Biden’s call for a simple return to Obama era climate policies (policies which were themselves unambitious and ineffective) feels like nothing more than misguided nostalgia — an apt summary of his larger campaign.

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