Joe Biden paces as he dictates long portions of his speeches to aides, spinning out thoughts that quickly pile into six, seven or eight paragraphs of copy, only to later be scrapped.
On the 2020 campaign trail, he’d keep groups of supporters waiting inside while he’d hole up in a black car with aides, refining lines of his prepared remarks.
Revisions go up to crunch time; it isn’t uncommon for a staffer to be scurrying to the teleprompter with a flash drive just before an event is to begin.
For higher-profile remarks, he’d obsessively rehearse portions until he committed them to memory. And at times through the various iterations of outlining remarks, Biden could grow downright ornery.
“I would never say this,” Biden once snapped at an aide, aghast over the prepared remarks he was reviewing, according to a person in the room during a speech prep session last year. “Where did you get this from?’”
The aide explained that Biden had just said it in a public speech a couple of weeks earlier.
Such are the hallmarks and unpleasantries that are the sausage-making of speech writing with Biden.
Whether it’s his second stump speech on the same day in Michigan or a nationally televised address, there are few tasks in politics that Biden takes more seriously than speaking. And, perhaps, the struggles he had with speech in his childhood explains why.
On Wednesday, Biden, the boy who grew up talking with a stutter, will deliver an inaugural address that carries more weight than any of the speeches he has obsessed over in the past.
“He is well aware this is the most important inaugural speech since Lincoln,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who is a close Biden ally.
Biden’s address, which is supposed to run between 20 and 30 minutes, is expected to reprise themes he’s hit on since he entered the presidential race in April 2019, including bringing back the “soul of the nation,” and a pledge to be president for all Americans, even those who didn’t vote for him.
But unlike some of those past versions, there is heightened urgency to Wednesday’s address. Confronting multiple crises, including a pandemic and the economic fallout from it, Biden needs bipartisan support to push an ambitious agenda through Congress. A powerful inaugural address is seen as one step toward bringing more naysayers to his side, those close to him say.
Longtime aides and advisers expect the inaugural address to traverse territory that Biden has covered over the course of his nearly 50-year public career, while highlighting an agenda that offers up hope to a country ravaged by disease, economic struggles, and violent political insurrection.
While the process behind developing Biden’s speeches can be grueling (one longtime adviser jokingly suggested creating a support group for Biden speech writers), there is a method to it. Biden has maintained a core team of loyal advisers around him who have grown to learn how to parse when the president-elect is just riffing and when he really wants his thoughts committed to paper.
Biden has grown comfortable with chief speech writer Vinay Reddy and senior adviser Mike Donilon, who have helped him thread his narratives in a simple, grounded way. The president-elect has also leaned on Tony Blinken, his secretary of state designate, to help with the speech writing process. Incoming chief of staff Ron Klain is in the mix as well.
For his speeches, Biden receives advice — solicited and unsolicited — from a wide cast of luminaries, which in the past has included historian Jon Meacham. It was not entirely clear among aides if Meacham contributed to the drafting of the inauguration speech, though a source familiar with the process said he had consulted on the process.
“I do know there is a lot of attention going toward the speech,” said Democratic National Committee Finance Chair Chris Korge. “He’s going to turn the page and move forward for all Americans.”
The inaugural address will be Biden’s biggest audience since he delivered an acceptance speech on Nov. 7. It will be the most high-stakes speech since the one he delivered at the August Democratic National Convention, when disinformation was raging about his mental acuity. Biden’s team at the time said they were prepared for Republicans — namely President Donald Trump — to seize on any phrase Biden garbled.
“People were nervous,” said a confidant who spoke with Biden in the days before the convention speech, which was delivered from Wilmington, Del. “But Joe had labored over it and at one point, he said, ‘I'm going to make the ancestors proud. I’m going to make mom and dad proud.'”
Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana congressman who just stepped down to take a senior role in the Biden White House, said now, just like in August, people failed to give Biden due credit.
“People have always underestimated his ability to rise to a challenge,” said Richmond. “No matter what, he’s always risen to the occasion.”
Biden will speak at a time when there is a show of force in the nation’s capital, with the center of the district shuttered to the public and thousands of armed troops roaming the streets to stave off the kind of deadly unrest that unfolded inside the Capitol building on Jan. 6.
But Matt Teper, who worked as a speechwriter for Biden in the Obama White House, predicted Biden would spend little to no time talking about Trump specifically.
“The most important thing tomorrow is probably his tone,” Teper said. “American carnage [the theme of Trump’s inaugural address] keeps coming up in every conversation, but nobody wants to hear that. He needs to give people a sense of looking forward. There’s a president in charge right now. As long as he projects all that, then that’s a success.”
Christopher Cadelago and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the piece mischaracterized Meacham's involvement with the inaugural speech.