Joe Biden still has challenges ahead in his half-century-long quest for the presidency, but if he manages to pull it off, his performance Thursday night while accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination will be seen as the moment he proved his mettle.
It was the speech of his life – straightforward, robust, and full of broad promises to return the country to decency and normalcy.
His remarks weren’t flashy, largely devoid of the lofty poetry of Ronald Reagan or wonky policy prescriptions of Bill Clinton. Many of the lines were quite familiar, providing guideposts for both his relatively smooth delivery and for the viewing audience at home to easily follow.
Speaking to a mostly empty Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., against a dark-blue backdrop filled with flags and stars, Biden repeated his frequent promise to restore the “soul of America” and deliver the country from the “darkness” of the Trump Era.
At 77, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. would be the oldest American to ever take the oath of office for a first presidential term. Over the course of the last four days, he and his stage managers have somehow managed to turn his biggest liability – his advanced age – into an asset. Legions of supporters, celebrities, and nearly all of his rivals for the Democratic nomination touted his 50 years in public life and its myriad moments of resilience, reversals and resolve as the perfect remedy for an ailing nation struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic amid deep economic turmoil.
President Trump, Biden argued, has failed in his most basic duties to contain the virus that has killed more than 170,000 Americans and destroyed the previously booming economy.
“He's failed to protect us. He's failed to protect America, and my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable," Biden said. "As president, I'll make you a promise: I'll protect Americans. I will defend us from every attack -- seen and unseen -- always, without exception, every time.”
Biden rattled off a litany of sweeping pledges -- to end the pandemic, revive the economy, stop climate change and remove “the stain of racism from our national character.”
Trump and his team couldn’t let the moment pass without assailing their rival as a lifelong politician peddling empty promises.
“In 47 years, Joe did none of the things of which he speaks,” Trump tweeted in real-time reaction. “He will never change, just words!”
Even worse, added Trump Communications Director Tim Murtaugh, if Biden realizes his dream, he would be a virtual puppet carrying out policies from a socialist playbook. “By accepting his party’s nomination tonight, Joe Biden has formally become a pawn of the radical leftists,” Murtaugh tweeted. “His name is on the campaign logo, but the ideas come from socialist extremists.”
More than just his handling of the pandemic and its fallout, Trump was slammed by Biden for stoking anger and division in America, promising to bring the country out of the “shadow of suspicion” and return it to a path of “hope” and “light.”
“I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency. I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I’ll be an ally of the light, not the darkness,” he pledged.
As Barack Obama did the night before, Biden described 2020 as a “life-changing election” that will determine the moral direction of the country for “very long time” to come. “Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are on the ballot,” he said.
Throughout the speech, Biden seamlessly commingled the personal and the political, drawing on the lessons of his now well-known dual life tragedies and his gritty ability to steer himself and his family through sorrow and rebuild. His political career has been bookended by them – the death of first wife, Neilia, and their 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, in an auto accident and the heart-wrenching battle Beau Biden fought against cancer that took his life in 2015.
“I know how it feels to lose someone you love. I know the deep black hole that opens up in your chest, that you feel your whole being is sucked into it,” he said. “I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.”
The best way through the grief and pain is to “find purpose.”
This election, Biden continued, provides the entire nation a great purpose: “To be the doors of opportunity to all Americans. To save our democracy. To be a light to the world once again.”
In a video, the Biden family helped set the stage for the former vice president’s big speech. Several of his teenage granddaughters laughed and joked about their close bonds with him while his two surviving children, Ashley and Hunter, spoke of their late brother Beau and hailed their father’s lifetime of strength and resolve.
“He will never let you down,” said Hunter, whose struggles with drug addiction, failed marriages, and scandal have played out in the press along with his decision to accept a lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company while his father was vice president.
Earlier there was also a film tribute to Beau, a former soldier who served in Iraq and as attorney general of Delaware, a job that led him to strike up a friendship with Kamala Harris, his father’s running mate who was serving as California’s top prosecutor at the time.
Throughout the evening, Biden got helping hands from numerous Democratic speakers and celebrities all united in their endorsements and kind words for him. Most of his 2020 Democratic competitors set aside their differences to offer jovial praise.
In a bit of made-for-television programming magic, Americans watching the first “virtual” political convention got a glimpse of a very young Joe Biden. It came in the form of 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, who is not kin to the nominee. Young Brayden is simply a New Hampshire boy Biden met along the campaign trail. Last night, he was seen speaking bravely about his stuttering struggles and how Biden, who stuttered as boy himself, has helped him feel more confident.
In the end, it’s likely that Biden and his political party actually benefited from the forced virtual convention that jettisoned plans for him to accept the nomination before a live crowd in Milwaukee. The two-hour prime-time constraints provide a lively pace and kept the speakers, including Biden, from exceeding their time limits.
The campaign saved the only real surprise element for the very end – when the nominee and Harris appeared outside the Chase Center in Wilmington for a drive-in watch party. Biden, his wife, Jill, along with Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, wearing their coronavirus-era face masks, enjoyed a socially distanced fireworks finale in the parking lot.
Just moments before, during his remarks, Biden had alluded to the challenging times 2020 has created for so many Americans and the need for the entire nation to unite in “our determination to make the coming years bright.”
“Are we ready?” he asked. “I believe we are.”