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Fifty-Fifty: New Presidency: New Themes, New Memes

Will President Biden’s tenure be all dull and boring? The red button, the stutter and the mittens only indicate that despite ‘old’ Biden being somewhat colourless and unexcitable, there is a good fifty-fifty chance that the next four years will still give us our share of lighter moments and uplifting narratives.

Photo Credit : Reuters

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To be honest, President Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony was everything one would have expected, and hoped for. With just a small crowd in attendance, it was simple, uplifting and beautiful. It was patriotic and stirring, in just the right measure, but with nothing to go gaga over, despite the presence of Lady Gaga. The new President’s inauguration address was centred on hope and inclusivity. And positivity. After four years of political hoopla, it was a breath of fresh air. Though, for the first time in some time, a political event of this scale in Washington was — need I say it? — boring!

But, despite President Joe Biden’s somewhat bland (and, yes boring) check-in into the White House, some side-shows around the new POTUS have been interesting and different, showing how he is the anti-thesis of his predecessor. The first big ‘small’ change was the disappearance of a red button from the presidential desk. Donald Trump would often joke about the ‘hot’ button, saying that it could activate America’s nuclear weapons. The twice-impeached president would prank visitors by hitting the button and see them squirm. In reality, when Trump would press the little red button, a butler would swiftly bring in a Diet Coke on a silver platter! The banishing of the red button and ‘removal of Diet Coke’ from the White House had social media in splits till Coke’s rival PepsiCo responded “Maybe he’s more of a Pepsi kind of guy” doubling the mirth amongst netizens. And some of the boredom was broken!

President Biden faltered during his inauguration speech at one point when he was saying the words ‘urban and rural’.  He re-articulated the words, without any hesitation, and smoothly carried on. Few noticed. His stutter, a childhood speech impediment, however, is today giving hope to millions around the world who also have communication disorders. Biden has gone on record claiming to have struggled with the stutter his entire life. Biden apparently uses special techniques like deliberate pauses to avoid stuttering. The level of clear speech that Biden today has is a remarkable feat and proves that those with speech disorders can be successful communicators too. In fact, Amanda Gorman's inauguration poem was also inspiring as she opened up about struggles with speech articulation throughout her life. Biden and Gorman's success, publicly visible to the whole world at the inauguration, will hopefully help end stigmas of people with speech disorders and help people listen to the content they speak about instead of how they say it. 

Stuttering (sometimes called stammering or disfluent speech) is characterized by repetition, prolongation (extending the duration) of sounds, and interruptions in speech known as blocks. A person who stutters knows exactly what he or she wants to stay, but has difficulty with the flow of the words. In some cases, those with the condition may experience rapid eye blinks or lip tremors alongside the stuttering. This can lead to mental ailments. During a presidential-primary debate in Atlanta in November 2019, Biden stuttered several times. But as he himself put it, the stutter “can’t define who you are.” Brave Biden! I found that rather touching, and inspiring. 

The biggest side-show of the Presidential inauguration (and by far the most hilarious) were a pair of homemade mittens on a bespectacled man huddled in a chair. The image of former Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, bundled up, bemittened, slightly slouching and socially distanced with his legs and arms crossed and eyes downcast spiralled into a breakout viral phenomenon after President Biden took office outside the U.S. Capitol.  

Washington-based photographer Brendan Smialowski snapped the now-iconic shot of Sanders which has been recreated, edited and transplanted into hundreds of downright funny situations by netizens in the past few days. The bemittened Senator Sanders stood out in stark contrast with the other visuals of the day: a parade of U.S. politicians and celebrities dressed up in designer monochrome outfits, reaffirming the virtues of U.S. democracy after a tumultuous four years. But it was the Sanders image that found a global resonance transcending nationality, politics and context. Perhaps Sanders’s seemingly grumpy appearance reflected peoples’ own annoyance with politicians and political systems at a time when the world is reeling from a pandemic that has exacerbated economic and social divides. The democratic socialist Sanders was the most relatable part of a day meant to display America’s democratic process. People, though, just really needed something to laugh about together. Bernie Sanders’ mittens provided that comic relief. 

Sanders’ image went wild: showing up at the Russian bus strike, on a highway and in a crowded bus in Kenya, at the Paris fashion Week, at bookstands in Teheran, with the BTS Band in Korea and more. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even used his image as a backdrop element while urging his fellow countrymen to stay home! 

Sanders’ mittens have proved to be a bonanza for Jennifer Ellis, the woman behind the mittens that gave the Vermont senator his viral moment. Ellis, a 42-year-old elementary school teacher, lives a quiet life in the Vermont town of Essex Junction. A fan of Sanders, she sent him a pair of mittens after he lost to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, as a consolation gift. She learned through a common acquaintance that Sanders liked the mittens. Last year, as Sanders was running again for president, he wore the mittens often – “people were calling them his oven mitts” – but gave them away to a supporter who needed them more. Ellis said she was so touched by this that she sent Sanders another 10 pairs. But ever since the Sanders meme went viral, Ellis' phone has not stopped ringing and her email inbox is exploding. She has received around 13,000 emails from people who want to buy her mittens. With Ellis unable to service the demand for the famous mittens, some websites are already advertising mittens they say are identical to Ellis's creation, for US$85 a pair!

Will President Biden’s tenure be all dull and boring? The red button, the stutter and the mittens only indicate that despite ‘old’ Biden being somewhat colourless and unexcitable, there is a good fifty-fifty chance that the next four years will still give us our share of lighter moments and uplifting narratives.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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joe biden Magazine 4 Feb 2021

Dr Sandeep Goyal

The author was Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He has authored Konjo – The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy, both Harper Collins publications, on his 25 years of working with Japan.

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