Words Matter. And Joe Biden Needs to Use His Better | Opinion

Since Joe Biden's nomination has become clear, some great signs for a Democratic victory have emerged. President Donald Trump's approval ratings, which surged at the beginning of the pandemic crisis, have settled back into the mid-40s, and his disapproval ratings continue to be above 50 percent. Moreover, there is rising dissatisfaction with the president's handling of the coronavirus crisis, and that is particularly true among older Americans, who, in the latest polls, increasingly disapprove of Trump's leadership during this unprecedented period. In addition, polling in key swing states seems to be breaking against Republicans more and more, and the surprise defeat of a conservative justice in Wisconsin's travesty of an election process, which Republicans insisted upon, was a great sign for how the most crucial swing state in the country views Trump and the Republican Party.

Of course, incumbent presidents can dominate the media, and Trump has eagerly taken center stage, with his COVID-19 press conferences, some of which have lasted over two hours, as much as possible. While many have suggested these appearances are drowning out Biden, they are actually working in the former vice president's favor, for two reasons.

First, Trump has not been able to use the briefings to showcase capable leadership through this health and economic crisis. Instead, the American people have watched him blame governors, criticize the press and release substantial misinformation. Worst of all, he has failed to articulate a plan for widespread testing and tracing, which experts agree is the key thing the federal government must do to lead us out of this.

Tens of thousands of Americans are dead, and many more remain in dire medical conditions. Tens of millions are unemployed and anxiety-stricken over how to provide for themselves and their families. Yet the president has shown himself to be incapable of delivering meaningful words of sorrow and empathy. Instead, he chooses to rant about how he is the victim of an unfair press and a vindictive Democratic Party, as well as congratulate himself for his incompetent handling of the crisis.

Second, letting Trump continue to devalue his own political standing has been beneficial to Biden at a time when Biden's own media appearances from home have unfortunately shown a worrisome inability to focus his message and articulate clearly and crisply. So, for the time being, Trump dominating the airwaves while talking down his own approval ratings and drowning Biden out—when Biden's appearances have been pretty subpar anyway—has also been a positive for the presumptive Democratic nominee so far.

The question is, What happens when that spotlight shifts? And it will.

As we move toward Election Day, Biden will no longer be able to let Trump do the talking. He will have to come out and present the case against Trump himself, as well as his vision for the future. The last two Democrats to win the White House, Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, connected with the American people in large part because they were strong orators.

Although Trump cannot be accused of being a strong orator, he does know how to communicate with his base in a way that connects to their passions. His words may often turn off the rest of the country, but he lights up the 46 percent or so of Americans who support him by playing verbal chords and resonant themes that create an emotional bond between him and his supporters.

By contrast, Biden's television appearances—consisting mostly of softball interviews (outside of those dealing with the sexual harassment allegations) that ask for his critique of the president's leadership during the pandemic—have been way below an acceptable level for somebody who is leading the charge in perhaps the most important election of our lifetime.

I am troubled to have to say this, but it has to be said: Biden must improve his unscripted speaking. There is nothing more urgent for his campaign aides to address.

Biden has proved that money is not going to define his chances. He was outspent by most of the other leading Democratic presidential contenders, and yet he won. Against Trump, he has the advantage of his policy positions being more in line with a majority of Americans, from gun safety to abortion to climate change to health care. People view him as empathetic and someone who relates well to American workers.

However, Biden is up against an opponent whose most potent weapon is his ability to drive free media by spoken word and tweeted phrases that stir passion. When it comes to the small slice of decisive swing independents in Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Florida, Colorado, Michigan and Pennsylvania—not to mention young voters, particularly those who may have supported Bernie Sanders—can he be sufficiently convincing if he cannot articulate his thoughts more clearly?

When Biden is talking with a teleprompter, he commands the situation much better than Trump. But in his living room media appearances so far, he stumbles, fails to complete sentences, searches for words, repeats the same points, has difficulty hitting the right points and does not take points to a deeper level, making his comments seem overly general and superficial.

It is crucial for Biden to be able to articulate the case against Trump's mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. It increasingly appears that the election will be won or lost based on Americans' opinion of the president's response to the health crisis and his ability to get the economy going again safely.

Biden's comments hit key phrases, such as "insufficient testing," "lack of medical supplies," "follow the science," "utilize the Defense Production Act" and "listen to the experts." But they do not come together to form a crisp, clear critique of Trump and a plan to give Americans hope for the months and years ahead. He must provide a real storyline for how we, as a country, can emerge from this crisis safely, with support for those least able to handle the cruelest elements of the economic downturn.

Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 during a press event in Wilmington, Delaware, on March 12. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

If Biden's speaking does not improve, it will play into the most obvious critiques of his candidacy. The Trump campaign will go after Biden as an establishment politician of the Washington, D.C., "swamp," who therefore talks in "political speak"; or it will characterize him as "confused," and therefore standing for nothing; or it will paint him as "too old" to handle the job.

I believe Biden is capable of making this jump. On criminal justice reform, for instance, an issue with which he has a long history and is clearly more comfortable, he speaks elegantly. But on the pandemic and other top issues today, he is just not there yet.

If Biden can clearly articulate the case against the president—especially his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis—he has a real shot at cutting through all the Trump campaign's attacks. This critique is easy to lay out. The administration has clearly failed on many levels, as Joe Scarborough crystallizes every day on Morning Joe. But if Biden can't pick up his game, capturing the hearts of those voters he needs at the margin is going to be extremely difficult, and instead, he will have to rely on the rationality of their minds in recognizing him as the superior candidate. Winning their hearts is the clearer path to victory—and the hearts of most citizens have been deeply touched by this dual health and economic crisis.

So, this is a message to Biden's campaign staff: Figure out how to fix this issue, and fix it quickly. This presidential race is winnable, with everything moving in the right direction for Biden if you can get him to deal with this problem. It is better to not be seen at all for a few weeks in the midst of Trump driving himself down through his bloviating, and to go address this critical issue with whatever means of coaching, simulations or mock interview drills are necessary to get Biden's articulation of the pandemic crisis into a compelling narrative that really resonates. Trump is no leader, but you can't lead without communicating effectively, and right now, Joe Biden is not doing that.

Tom Rogers is an editor-at-large for Newsweek, the founder of CNBC and a CNBC contributor. He also established MSNBC, is the former CEO of TiVo, currently executive chairman of WinView, and is former senior counsel to a congressional committee.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.