At this rate, every American will soon have a podcast. Two weeks ago, struggling to break through the noise of the coronavirus crisis, Joe Biden, like so many before him, plugged an SM57 microphone into a laptop and hit Record.
Here’s the Deal is less a podcast than the audio equivalent of a hostage holding up a newspaper with the day’s date. It is, as Will Leitch wrote for New York, “a weekly proof-of-life reminder for Biden. He’s still here, promise!” The first two episodes, featuring longtime Biden adviser Ron Klain and Michigan Governor (and potential vice presidential nominee) Gretchen Whitmer, barely stretch beyond 20 minutes each but feel at least 15 minutes longer than they should be.
Biden’s campaign clearly hoped that Here’s the Deal would be a twenty-first-century fireside chat, fostering the kind of intimate connection with voters that the now-presumptive Democratic nominee, for all his avuncular attributes, has struggled to generate during the 2020 campaign. The qualities that made him charming as a vice president—a mouth that moves faster than his mind, an overreliance on outdated euphemisms (“malarkey,” etc.)—now just make him seem old and out of touch. The problems with his podcast mirror the problems of his campaign.
Here’s the Deal is supposed to underscore Biden’s core message: that he represents a return to normalcy and competence after four years in a political nightmare. With Klain, who led the Obama administration’s Ebola response, we get a bite-size look at how a hypothetical Biden administration would be managing the pandemic. With Whitmer, a moderate governing a state with a Republican legislature, we get three cheers for bipartisanship.
The message doesn’t quite come across, partly because Biden is a clumsy podcast host. Despite being a major feature of his coronavirus-hobbled campaign, Here’s the Deal sounds cheap and thrown together. Biden’s odd speech patterns are sometimes heavily edited, giving them a chopped feel, like a grandpa appearing in a Tik Tok video. At other times, Biden speaks in paragraphs that are the verbal equivalent of someone falling down a rocky hill.
I know it sounds corny, but I’m so damn proud to be an American. Look at how people are coming together in this country. After—being—after appealing to their prejudices for three years and you know, that folks from that part of the world is not a good person, and we don’t want anybody Muslim, we don’t want this, we don’t want that divi—look what they’re doing. You have these first responders showing up and going into homes and taking people out into ambulances. You watch the things that are spontaneously happening. Thank God the networks are putting them on television.
As an interviewer, no one will mistake Biden for Terry Gross or Marc Maron. There’s no conversation, no sense of drawing his guest out. Biden throws two or three softballs, and his guests answer with extreme deference. The interviews on Here’s the Deal are not conversations—they’re something between a (very low-energy) campaign event and a poorly cut advertisement. The podcast resembles Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine’s instantly forgettable campaign book Stronger Together, in that it is terrified to stray too far beyond Biden’s milquetoast talking points.
The show’s unbearable dullness does bolster one of Biden’s core arguments: that he is not Donald Trump. Here’s the Deal is careful to keep Biden out of the mud. It tries to project the kind of calm and normalcy he claims he will bring back to the country if elected in November. But that only makes the podcast a missed opportunity. Whenever Klain attacks the Trump administration’s horrific and incompetent response to the coronavirus, Biden pulls back. “I’m determined that this should not be political,” he says at one point. “It’s not about partisan politics. It’s about how rapidly we can put in motion the initiatives that are going to save people’s lives and get us through this process.”
This steadfast determination to present Biden as above the fray, however, undercuts the point of the podcast itself, which is to keep him in the news. Biden does backflips to avoid saying anything incendiary, leaving nothing for people to write or talk about—except, that is, how boring the podcast is.
One could imagine a different version of the podcast. The Biden team could take a cue from Bernie Sanders’s much better podcast, which was hosted by the campaign’s press secretary. Sanders appeared on it only rarely, allowing others to do battle for him. In this version, Biden surrogates would be freed to take their gloves off and attack Trump at length and in detail. Biden himself is just unable to say anything of substance, apparently because he thinks it would only damage his chances in November.
Here’s the Deal similarly falls short of its other goal of humanizing Biden. Its most mocked moment involves Biden discussing his love of Fig Newtons, which he likes because he can “sneak” them without aides or family members chastising him. The story only makes him sound roughly 900 years old. It does, I suppose, get points for authenticity, the antithesis of Hillary Clinton’s “I keep hot sauce in my bag” shtick. But that’s the problem: The authentic Biden, a 78-year-old who loves Fig Newtons and Congress, seems increasingly divorced from life in America, and even more so in post-coronavirus America.
Other anecdotes were genuinely alarming, including Biden admitting that he “tries to get out of bed by 8 o’clock every morning,” as if he deserves a medal.
The best version of Biden, the one that has been curiously absent for most of the 2020 campaign, does shine through in moments, such as when he talks about a friend whose kindergartener was delighted by a visit from their teacher, or how moved he was to see people visiting nursing homes and passing notes to elderly shut-ins. That Biden makes it clear that, deep down, he gives a damn. Unfortunately, Here’s the Deal doesn’t seem to care about anything.