The Taming of Joe Biden

In his introduction of President Obama on this historic day of reckoning with America’s health care system, Joe Biden stated on mic, what many of us were thinking: “This is a big f-cking deal.”

In a ship run as tightly as Team Obama (not flawless, but definitely well run), it’s hard to explain Joe Biden’s gaffe situation.  He has had a distinguished career, having served his country well for nearly 40 years. But the fact remains: Watching the Vice President speak can be cringe-inducing.  It’s not quite at the Dan Quayle level, but it’s getting close.

In my mind, there are really only 2 explanations for this.

1) Option 1: Team Obama is all over this. One possibility is that Obama’s people are not only aware of the problem, but are working very diligently with him to give him coaching, feedback and guidance early and often.  Hence the tendency toward more scripted opportunities, and off camera interactions.  If this is the case, then we may be seeing that rare example of “The Utterly Uncoachable.”  This would reveal a deeply troubling self awareness issue on the part of Vice President Biden.

2) Option 2: Team Obama is in denial. This seems extremely unlikely, but I suppose that it is possible that no one wants to tell Vice President Biden that his baby is ugly, as it were, and that he’s just too dangerous to be mic’d. 

Given what he told Katie Couric about not wanting to compromise his authentic voice for carefully scripted messaging, I’m pretty sure Option 1 is our winner.

The Diagnosis.

Based on what I can tell, Joe is a very, very charismatic man in the right circumstances.  The confidence, warmth and ease that often backfires on him in public settings is the same warmth, confidence and ease that has probably helped him a great deal in one-on-one situations and in closed door situations.  I also believe that Joe Biden really enjoys his opportunities on stage.  I would almost wager a bet that he enjoys it so much, he tells his staff “I’ve got this. Not gonna be one of your clones, thanks.”  But maybe not. What do I know? I’ve never met the man.

But I do know that Joe Biden is likeable enough, and God knows he has all of the right experience.  He just seems to be playing it all a bit too fast and loose, failing to think through things before blurting them out – the classic hallmark of someone who is used to winning people over with relative ease.  Could there be a more polar opposite than President Obama who measures every word before he allows it out of his mouth?

The big question I have is this: how does Vice President Biden react to his own gaffes?  It is entirely possible that he is overwhelmed by shame and embarrassment, and vows each time to do better.  It is also possible that he thinks “Oh well. I’m just being myself.  Tomorrow’s a new day.”  There is a universe of difference there.  If the latter is the case, we could be in for quite a few more YouTube gems, I’m sorry to say.

The Prescription.

If I were in charge of all things Joe Biden, I would assign a Chief Media Coach to be his shadow, his confidante, his conscience and his “tough love” resource before and after each and every public appearance.  But given how Team Obama rolls, I’m fairly certain said Media Coach is already in place, and very likely pulling his or her hair out, strand by strand.

If I were in that person’s shoes, I would take a two pronged approach:

Step One, do all of the obvious prep on issues, key messages, Q&A.

Step Two, do the hard work of digging deep into each of his public gaffes and figure out what is causing Vice President Biden to get so lost in the moment.  The common denominator of each and every misstep seems to be exuberance, enthusiasm and passion.  What is it about these triggers that creates such a disconnect between brain and mouth?

I generally like to think the best of people.  I have to believe that when Joe Biden was talking to Katie Couric, he knew that FDR didn’t “go on television” to talk about the stock market crash of 1929.  In fact, it wasn’t FDR but Hoover, who dealt with the early days of the Depression… and not well, I might add, and 1929 was hardly the "break out year" for television.  But Biden got so caught up trying to make his point about leadership during a crisis that he spoke before he had the chance to tap the catalogue of knowledge in his brain.

If you can nail the mystery of what happens inside his mind when this exuberance hits, the rest will come with practice and further coaching work.  Self awareness is a powerful weapon against public screw ups.

Step Two is by far the most difficult.  It takes a very special personality match to make a difference with a client like Joe Biden, given the level of introspection and vulnerability required.  What kind of person he would best work with, I can’t begin to guess, but I have to imagine that given the results thus far, whatever coaching he’s getting, it’s 100% focused on Step 1 and not Step 2.

But before you go writing Biden off, remember – anything is possible. Even health care reform.