“Here and now, I give you my word,” Biden said at the top of a speech that punctuated a convention downsized because of the coronavirus, stripped of pageantry and a live audience. “If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst.”
The speech, broadcast from Wilmington, Delaware, tied the existential themes Biden and Democrats have pushed since the beginning of his campaign into a tight, forward-looking case to move the country past a moment of great crises.
“As president, the first step I will take will be to get control of the virus that has ruined so many lives, because I understand something this president hasn't from the beginning: we will never get our economy back on track, we will never get our kids safely back in schools, we'll never have our lives back, until we deal with this virus,” Biden said.
Like other Democrats who addressed voters watching at home, the former vice president framed Trump as a threat to democracy and decency. Biden also spoke of his personal losses, making a connection to those grieving and suffering in the midst of a prolonged pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans.
“On this summer night, let me take a moment to speak to those of you who have lost the most,” said Biden, whose first wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972.
“I have some idea how it feels to lose someone you love,” Biden continued. “I know that deep black hole that opens up in the middle of your chest and you feel you're being sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes. But I've learned two things: First, your loved ones may have left this Earth but they’ll never leave your heart. They’ll always be with you, you’ll always hear them. And second, I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose.”
Biden put forth a federalized approach to curbing the coronavirus’s spread: fast testing with fast results, more American-made medical and personal protective equipment, and a national mandate to wear masks. Trump has downplayed the severity of the pandemic, largely left the response to states and their governors, complained that more testing yields more positive cases (reflecting more poorly on him), and offered mixed messages on masks.
“In short,” Biden said, “we’ll do what we should have done from the very beginning. Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to this nation. He’s failed to protect us.”
Much of the convention week was spent defining two men most voters already know: Trump, the business tycoon turned TV star turned president, and Biden, a politician for nearly 50 years. Few speakers — Sen. Bernie Sanders, the runner-up to Biden for the nomination, being a somewhat surprising exception — made an overtly positive case for Biden based on policy.
Many used their time to condemn Trump or to celebrate Biden’s empathy and compassion. In one of the most emotional moments of Thursday’s program, Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old from New Hampshire, shared how Biden, who stuttered as a child, helped him with his own stutter after meeting him on the campaign trail. There also were constant reminders of the Biden family tragedies, including a video tribute to the former vice president’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015.
Biden, though his remarks at points touched on all of those things, centered his candidacy around three areas: racial injustice, economic injustice, and environmental justice. All tie into the crises of the moment, and the latter two are areas where those to the left of Biden in the Democratic Party wish he would be more progressive. His plan for combating climate change, for example, is not packaged as the Green New Deal that’s favored by Sanders and others on the left. Rather, Biden presented his ideas more mildly and briskly, as “an opportunity for America to lead the world in clean energy and create millions of new good-paying jobs in the process.”
He spent considerable time on the crisis of systemic racism. “History,” Biden said, “has thrust one more urgent task on us. Will we be the generation that finally wipes out the stain of racism from our national character?” He spoke of how Trump’s mollifying response to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago pushed him toward a third run for president. And he talked about George Floyd, the unarmed Black man killed by Minneapolis police in May in a case that has inspired anti-racism protests and opened a new national dialogue on race.
“One of the most important conversations I've had this entire campaign is with someone who was much too young to vote,” Biden said. “I met with 6-year-old Gianna Floyd, a day before her daddy George Floyd was laid to rest. She is an incredibly brave little girl. I’ll never forget. When I leaned down to speak with her, she looked into my eyes and said, ‘Daddy changed the world.’ ‘Daddy changed the world.’ Her words burrowed deep into my heart. Maybe George Floyd's murder was the breaking point.”
Trump, whom the Republican Party will renominate for president next week, has so far struggled to find criticisms of Biden that resonate with many voters — a stark contrast to 2016, when anti–Hillary Clinton messages and chants formed the backbone of Trump’s presidential bid. Trump’s reelection team has leaned heavily on Biden’s age — at 77, he is three years older than Trump — and his tendency to misspeak. His campaign has repeatedly made baseless accusations that Biden is mentally unfit for the job.
Ahead of Biden’s speech Thursday, Trump allies sent billboard trucks to Wilmington emblazoned with slogans like “If you can’t complete a sentence, you shouldn’t be president” and “I’m Joe Biden, and I forgot this message.”
The tactic, and the months of talk about senility that accompanied it, had the effect of setting a strikingly low bar Thursday for the most consequential speech of Biden’s career.
Trump had just one tweet during Biden’s speech Thursday night, moving the goalposts and accusing him of hollow words. “In 47 years,” he wrote, “Joe did none of the things of which he now speaks.”