For 20 minutes on Tuesday, Joe Biden framed the themes that have guided his presidential run with a call to action and clear rationale from a candidacy that at times had lacked both.
The country is in pain, Biden said repeatedly in remarks in Philadelphia, his first foray outside the neighboring Delaware since the coronavirus outbreak quarantined his campaign. He pitched himself as a healer in the aftermath of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of color and the tragedy of another black man killed during an encounter with a white police officer. The latter has stirred days of protests — and provocations from President Donald Trump.
Biden typically offers himself as someone uniquely and narrowly suited to such healing. But on Tuesday he spoke of a broader collective, emphasizing the “us” instead of the “I.”
“It’s going to take the work of a generation,” the 77-year-old former vice president said in the speech, which, in another change that rewarded Biden’s efforts to assert more leadership, was carried live by cable networks. “But if this agenda will take time to complete, it should not wait for the first 100 days of my presidency to get started. A down payment on what is long overdue should come now, should come immediately. I call on the Congress to act this month on measures that will be the first step in this direction, starting with real police reform.”
Specifically, Biden asked that a bill banning police chokeholds be sent to Trump's desk soon. This followed the news last week that a white Minneapolis police officer put George Floyd, a black man, in a knee chokehold before he died. This bill is not likely to pass, given that the Senate is controlled by Trump’s Republican allies. But it was a rare marker for Biden, whose speeches aren’t typically a list of things he wants from lawmakers in Washington.
“There’s no place for violence, no place for looting or destroying property or burning churches or destroying businesses, many of them built by the very people of color who for the first time in their lives are beginning to realize their dreams and build wealth for their families,” Biden said. “Nor is it acceptable for our police — sworn to protect and serve all people — to escalate tension and resort to excessive violence. We need to distinguish between legitimate peaceful protests and opportunistic violent destruction. We have to be vigilant about the violence that’s being done by this incumbent president to our economy and to the pursuit of justice.”
Biden’s speech clawed at Trump in a way his first remarks last week on Floyd and the protests in Minneapolis — and the president’s incendiary response to them — did not.
“Pain is raw. Pain is real,” Biden said. “The president of the United States must be part of the solution, not the problem. But this president today is part of the problem and accelerates it. When he tweeted the words ‘when the looting the starts, the shooting starts’ — they weren’t the words of a president. They were the words of a racist Miami police chief in the ’60s.”
Biden also criticized Trump for a stunt the president had orchestrated the night before: a walk from the White House to the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church. Law enforcement officials accommodated the president’s visit to the church — where Trump stood outside and posed with a Bible — by using force to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters.
“When peaceful protesters are dispersed in order for a president, a president, from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House, using tear gas and flash grenades in order to stage a photo op, a photo op, at one of the most historic churches in the country, or at least in Washington, DC, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle,” said Biden, repeating his words for emphasis in places.
“The president held up the Bible at St. John’s Church,” Biden later jabbed. “I just wish he opened it once in a while instead of brandishing it. If he opened it, he could have learned something.”
Biden’s campaign launched last year under the pledge that he would rebuild the soul of the nation. At times he has presented himself as a figure to address grief, sharing his own experiences with loss — the car accident that killed his first wife and daughter, the brain cancer that killed his eldest son, Beau. On Tuesday, he distinguished his personal pain from what people of color have endured.
“I know what it means to have that black hole in your chest, where your grief is being sucked into it,” said Biden, before reflecting on Beau’s death five years ago last week. “There are still moments when the pain is so great that it feels no different than the day I sat in that bed as he passed away. But I also know that the best way to bear loss and pain is to turn that anger and anguish into purpose.”
It was perhaps the sharpest connection Biden has made between his grief and this moment — and how his presidency would respond to it.
“Nobody will get it right every time,” he said. “And I won’t either. But I promise you this: I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I’ll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country, not use them for political gain. I’ll do my job, and I will take responsibility. I won’t blame others. I’ll never forget, I promise you. This job is not about me. It’s about you. It’s about us.”
As the speech neared the end, Biden spoke in triads, a device that lends a ministerial sound and cadence that is new, at least to his third presidential campaign.
“We’re a nation in pain. We must not let our pain destroy us,” Biden said. “We’re a nation enraged, but we can’t let our rage consume us. We’re a nation that’s exhausted, but we will not let our exhaustion defeat us.”