“Suddenly the coronavirus came back!” she said.
Author Jon Meacham spoke of the long arc of history and how various presidents have handled moments of national crisis.
“We’re an imperfect people,” he concluded. “But we don’t have to be as imperfect as we are right now.”
Their conversations with Biden were episodes of a podcast hosted by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who is filling a campaign suddenly bereft of rallies and backslapping with more sedate conversations atypical of most presidential efforts.
The low-key podcast also has become one of the clearest windows into Biden, offering a flavor for how he would govern, the types of people he would surround himself with and the questions he poses to advisers. He has used the weekly shows as a public audition for some of his potential running mates — a circumstance that goes unspoken — and to showcase a kitchen cabinet, all from the studio in the basement of his Wilmington, Del., home now serving as campaign headquarters.
Everything about Biden’s podcast — the production quality, the viewership numbers, the presentation, the occasional questions from listeners and the chummy tone of the man with the microphone — is a dramatic departure from the daily show put on by President Trump. Where Trump displays brash confidence at his coronavirus briefings, Biden often concedes that others are smarter than him. While Trump gets millions of viewers, Biden is getting tens of thousands. And while Trump feasts on conflict and controversy, Biden preaches bipartisan unity.
“We have a president, I’m rooting for him to succeed,” Biden said on one recent episode. “That’s the God’s truth . . . there’s so much at stake.”
Biden had an extended conversation with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) about being the target of Trump criticism. He sought out Inslee (D-Wash.) about climate change and Klobuchar (D-Minn.) about what it was like when her husband contracted the coronavirus.
“It is the opposite of what we see every day from the White House,” said Rob Flaherty, the Biden campaign’s digital director, who launched the podcasts. “It’s the VP having these thoughtful conversations with people who are either subject matter experts or prominent figures.”
Biden quotes Churchill, Kierkegaard and Jesus, often passing along aphorisms from family members. And he’s a host who knows he needs to let his guests dominate.
“Why don’t I hush up, as my mom would say. And tell me a little about what you’re doing,” he said to the Rev. William J. Barber.
During an exchange that lasted nearly an hour, the pastor lightly pressed the former vice president to shed some of his prior pragmatism and use this moment of national crisis to galvanize the public toward universal health care and far-reaching social justice programs.
In a conversation just before Easter, the pastor urged the politician to consider the lessons of the New Testament.
“The crucifixion and the resurrection changes everything. Right? It allows for you to say I was saying one thing then,” Barber said. “In a world where pandemics are going to continue to happen, if we cannot guarantee health care for everyone and have a universal form of health care, and basic living wages and basic sick leave, then we are missing the lesson of this moment.”
Biden said he agreed that the nation was in a transformational moment, and they were themes he also discussed on the next podcast with Meacham. Barber said in an interview that he has had only a handful of previous interactions with Biden.
“Having talked to a lot of politicians, I thought he would be more cautious, guarded and defensive,” Barber said in an interview. “But he actually listened.”
“I was basically saying in a pastoral way: Do you recognize this moment you’re in? You are in a moment like Franklin Roosevelt or LBJ. The moment changed them and their possibilities,” he added. “The question is, will the policies follow?”
The podcast is called “Here’s the Deal” — after “No Malarkey with Joe Biden” was rejected but before staffers realized they instead should have named it “Hear’s the Deal.”
While the show was his aides’ idea, Biden has grown unusually invested in it. He is the one often booking guests to appear, sometimes slipping in a request at the end of a private conversation. He’s asked his aides to fix the pacing on certain episodes, and while his staff has potential questions written up, he often riffs. Unprompted, he has started using phrases like “friend of the show” or “let’s hear from our listeners.”
Being a guest of the show has also become a bit of a status symbol among Democrats, eager to showcase proximity to power at a moment when social distancing means there can be no physical proximity. Biden’s aides have been approached by senators, governors and heads of organizations eager for a slot.
They are also hoping to get former president Barack Obama on as a guest.
In a campaign where Biden’s presence is hugely circumscribed by stay-at-home orders, his show has become a window into Biden’s daily routines. He attempts to get out of bed every day by 8 a.m., he told listeners. He then works out in a gym that has a treadmill, weights and a Peloton bike before downing a protein shake.
He has talked about a favorite snack (Fig Newtons) and expressed his love for a life staple.
“When in doubt, I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Biden said on one of the episodes, claiming former secretary of State John F. Kerry shared the same trait.
In the conversations, Biden repeatedly invokes Roosevelt and has tested out lines about the country being in a far different position now than most any time in his decades-long political career. He has bantered with guests about whether it is a historic turning point that will cause Americans to rethink the role of government or a fundamental shift in how they view the nurses, mailmen and grocery store workers they previously overlooked.
“It’s kind of like the blinders have been taken off, and they’ve seen people that they always saw but never understood how consequential they were before,” Biden told Inslee in the most recent episode. “I pray to God this is one of those moments where we move beyond where we were, not just back to where we were.”
He and Meacham launched an in-depth discussion about the Great Depression, as well as instances in which leaders have admitted they are wrong or changed their views in response to a crisis and a shifting media environment.
“I’ve known a bunch of presidents since 1972,” Biden said. “The ones who are really very bright and very well educated and informed are the ones who are least concerned about admitting they’re wrong. And most inclined to reach out to people who they think have a talent they don’t possess to bring that person in. It’s an interesting phenomenon. But it’s human nature.”
The podcast grew out of staffers trying to find ways for Biden to continue trying to get his message out when he became homebound. (Biden declined a request to be interviewed.)
“We aren’t hosting any large events,” Biden said, with a hint of melancholy, in the first episode, which debuted March 29 and featured his former chief of staff, Ron Klain. “Matter of fact, I am not really hosting any events.”
His campaign brainstormed a number of different ideas — including holding a rally on Fortnite, the gaming site — and some on his digital team pitched two different podcast ideas. (The rejected one had Biden offering listeners advice on handling everything from their dating life to adopting dogs, to handling the coronavirus.)
Hillary Clinton had a podcast called “With Her” during the 2016 campaign, but she had a co-host. They only recorded about a dozen episodes before the election, and most did not actually include the candidate. Clinton is expected to launch a new podcast of her own this spring, co-produced by iHeartMedia.
The Biden campaign wanted him to be the one at the microphone and wanted it to have the flavor of a real conversation. Not coincidentally, the approach dovetails with Biden’s campaign positioning as an everyman. Each episode includes several questions submitted by listeners, an effort to mimic exchanges he used to have with voters.
It is decidedly casual in tone. “I’d like to welcome Ron, who’s an old friend to the show. Ron, how are you, pal?” Biden said as he greeted Klain, who served in 2014 as the Ebola czar under Obama.
The first weekly episode was downloaded about 40,000 times, according to his campaign. It hasn’t ranked high, rising only to 38th among all podcasts, according to Chartable.
The campaign is looking at ways to change the format, perhaps having other regular features besides Biden talking to a guest. The show may shift to biweekly to allow more time for production and might also broadcast video of the interviews.
Each show is unique, but in almost every one Biden tries to exude a sense of optimism.
“What gives me hope is when I see somebody do just the little things they didn’t have to do, to go out of their way,” he says in one, recalling neighbors calling one another or those who hold doors open at a grocery store.
“The little acts of kindness. My dad used to say that’s how character is built. It’s built by a thousand little things, no one big thing, a thousand little things, and they all relate to acts of kindness and decency. Reaching out. That’s what gives me faith.”
Biden seems desperate to promote bipartisanship, praising those on his show who talk about the merits of working together. Klobuchar talked about being surprised to arrive in the U.S. Senate and see that senators had their desks arranged by political party, and about forging a friendship with then-Sen. John McCain, the late Republican from Arizona.
“John had a value set like yours. He was decent and honorable,” Biden told her. “We’d argue like hell, he and I . . . but at the end of the day we were friends.”
Biden at times can seem like a detached observer rather than a presidential candidate. The man known inside the current White House as “Sleepy Joe,” for example, marveled at how the president was assigning nicknames to governors.
“How do you deal with it?” he asked Whitmer, who Trump referred to as “the woman from Michigan” and “half-Whitmer.” “Just blow it off?”
“Well, I’ve got thick skin,” she responded. “If someone doesn’t like how I’m doing my job, well, it is what it is.”
In another episode, Biden talked about the November election.
“I have almost a blind faith in crisis in the American people getting it right,” he said. “But it’s important there has to be a counterview laid out there as to why and how to get it right. At least I’m going to try and do that. We’ll see.”
“And now,” he added, “it’s time for questions from our listeners.”