Comment: The refreshing return of simple politicking

President Biden’s tour of a Ford plant — even from behind a mask — signaled a return to pulpit politics.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

The president jogged up to the podium in Dearborn, Mich., took his place at the lectern and with a delighted-to-be-here expression on his unmasked face, introduced himself to an audience of autoworkers and their elected officials: “My name is Joe Biden and I’m a car guy.” Cheers erupted from the modest, not-socially-distanced crowd.

President Biden had come to this Detroit suburb on Tuesday afternoon to draw attention to Ford Motor Co.’s F-150 Lightning electric truck, as well as his administration’s infrastructure plan. He flew in to express awe during a tour of American technology and to demonstrate his blue-collar bona fides by settling into one of the new pickups with familiarity and ease. And after all the speechifying was finished, Biden headed over to Ford’s test track and gunned an F-150 down the asphalt.

“This sucker’s quick,” he announced to the assembled press.

It was a glimpse at the art of persuasion the way it was back before applause was replaced with car honks and rope lines became a distant memory. Biden’s speech was free of coronavirus statistics and vaccination pleas. He was not lamenting the fragility of democracy or spending time on false premises and conspiracy theories. It was simple politicking; not quite backslapping, but definitely fist-bumping. Of hewing to his message about infrastructure and jobs while dodging questions about Israelis and Palestinians, even as this trip situated him in a community with one of the largest Arab American populations in the United States.

Politicking. There it was in all its effervescent certainty.

Biden talked about his pricey plans for growing the economy and the brightness of America’s future, and he repeated his favorite lines about how a job isn’t just about a paycheck: “It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community.” He wasn’t kidding; he wasn’t joking. And if you have listened to any of Biden’s recent speeches, then you know that, really, he was serious, folks.

He made jokes about how long he’s been in public service, thanked all of his political allies, offered empathy for Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and her extended family in the West Bank, and marveled at Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ability to endure everything from a kidnapping plot to the roiling rage of a spurious Republican Party.

“As my mother would say: Gretchen, God love you, dear. You’ve got a backbone like a ramrod. You’ve got a brain as big as anybody in the business. And you are so honorable,” Biden said. “It’s a delight to know you, and anything I can do, as I said to you before, I’ll come campaign for you or against you, whichever will help the most.”

Biden delivered an afternoon of old-fashioned cheerleading for an American industry trying to suss out a green future; both environmentally and financially. And he made it plain that the real adversary is China, which has turned itself into a manufacturing behemoth.

This automotive fight isn’t an internal one, Biden said. It isn’t characterized as a tug of war between the know-it-alls in Washington and the folksy clock-punchers in the rest of the country. It isn’t a war between the coastal elites and the Rust Belt’s “real Americans.” This wasn’t politics as usual, but rather politics as it once had been; or at least the way we’d like to remember it.

The remarks, the smiles, all the rah-rah-rah felt like a lovely artifact from another time, with Biden speaking in upbeat certainties to the whole American public. In his remarks, Biden noted that he tells the country’s adversaries never to bet against us. But we so often give people cause to believe that doing so is a winning gamble. We have such problems with imprecision, nuance and evolving situations. We’re so often like a relay team a foot away from the finish line, arguing about who gets to carry the baton the last few steps.

Biden’s can-do optimism was made more vivid on Tuesday because it was delivered with full-face gusto rather than from behind a mask; a stance based on science rather than magical thinking.

That distracting bit of cloth has become a testament to our divisions and our need for immediate clarity. We have finally gotten some, and still the situation is fraught. Science is unemotional, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t messy and full of false starts and course corrections. The data has caused whiplash and confusion and incredible amounts of hand-wringing. All of our fears and frustrations are distilled into our deliberations over masks.

The masks — who wore them and when at a Ford facility in Dearborn — were a reminder of the difference between the work and the dream, the politics of casting one’s gaze toward a glorious future and the slog of the journey.

Once Biden finished his remarks, he slipped on his mask before he walked over to greet his audience. He’d also worn a mask when he’d toured the facility. Doing so was acknowledging that the public health crisis is not over, that caution is still required in some settings and under certain circumstances; optimism notwithstanding.

The local leaders were masked. So were the autoworkers. The masks signaled that there are countless personal circumstances for which people must account and consider. The science may be clear, but that doesn’t make it any easier to digest. On the ground, and even in the high-tech trenches, everything is nuanced, much is opaque. Daily life is not simple; it’s full of accommodations for the vulnerable, the fearful.

But onstage, standing in front of an American flag and a backdrop draped in bunting, everything is clear. Biden is certain. And his bet sounds like a sure thing.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

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