If Joe Biden becomes the 46th American President, his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination on Thursday night will be seen as the moment when the destiny of a man and his nation converged.
In vowing to purge the fear, darkness and disease he sees personified by President Donald Trump with hope, love and light, the Democratic nominee elevated his front-running campaign with the speech of his life.
Trump and his campaign have been trying for months to smear Biden as a doddering, senile 77-year-old who is being controlled by nefarious left-wing forces in the Democratic Party. But his smooth performance made those attacks now seem like an expectations-lowering miscalculation.
It will become clear in November whether the Democratic vision spelled out at the convention – one of diversity, inclusion, empathy and vows to tackle difficult challenges like racism and climate change – will be embraced by voters in a deeply polarized America. The election will also show whether Biden and his team put sufficient focus on the economy – an area where Trump has enjoyed higher poll ratings than for many other policy aspects of his term.
In presidential politics, many successful challengers have made themselves the answer to the flaws in their predecessors. Throughout the night, Biden’s friends and allies presented him as the opposite of Trumpism: a man of character and decency who tries to understand the story of everyone he meets, a stark contrast to a man known for a splenetic, vengeful personality.
Biden turned 50-year political career, which would make him the oldest American President ever inaugurated for a first term, into a strength. He presented the seasons, reversals, comebacks and empathy distilled from the harrowing personal tragedies of a life in full as an antidote for a nation that is divided, sick and grieving.
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“The current President has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division,” Biden said, dispensing with the usual preamble of an acceptance speech to deliver a stark opening on an empty stage.
“Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness. It’s time for us, for We the People, to come together.”
While Trump has repeatedly shown that he will listen to no one and has little interest in facts if they do not suit his political purposes, Biden was introduced as a leader who reads everything. Where Trump has rejected intelligence about Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers, Biden promised never to turn a “blind eye” to the threats US men and women in uniform are facing.
While Trump has offered encouraging words to those who would sow hate and division – like the white supremacists who marched with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia – Biden said it was at that exact moment that he felt compelled to run for the presidency, and he said it should be a call to action for other Americans.
While Biden sketched a ruinous picture of a nation in the grip of the worst pandemic in 100 years, the deepest economic slump since the Great Recession and amid a racial awakening, he also offered a path back to normality.
“Make no mistake. United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America. We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege,” the former vice president said.
“History has thrust one more urgent task on us,” he said. “Will we be the generation that finally wipes the stain of racism from our national character?”
“This is our moment,” he said in closing. “This is our mission. May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight as love and hope and light joined in the battle for the soul of the nation. And this is a battle that we, together, will win.”
Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris, along with their spouses, met on stage at the end of the former vice president’s speech. Marking the solemnity of the pandemic, there was no balloon drop. Instead, donning black masks to underscore the importance of staying safe in the pandemic, they walked outside to the parking lot to celebrate.
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There, fans and supporters had pulled up in their cars giving the venue the feel of 1950s drive-in movie theater, flashing their lights with some climbing on the hood of their vehicles to cheer and wave Americans flags. They were all socially distant, yet for the first time in five months, the Democrats’ enthusiasm was on full display, along with the sense of community that is so rare in these times.
Standing on an outdoor stage with an enormous flag as the backdrop, the four cheered with the crowd until they heard the first burst of fireworks overhead. Biden took it all in with his wife Jill, and when it ended, he removed his mask for a moment to reveal a grin as he waved the crowd good night.
Biden’s conviction and call for Americans to unite and recommit to their republic sketched out what is likely to be a sharp contrast to Trump’s own convention next week – one that is already shaping up as a festival of grievance anchored in the President’s warnings that the election will be rigged, an echo of his message in 2016 as polls showed him trailing Hillary Clinton.
Trump previewed his tone next week during a visit to Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Thursday.
Read: Transcript of Joe Biden’s DNC speech
“If you want a vision of your life under Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins of Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago, and imagine the mayhem coming to your town, and every single town in America,” the President warned.
“You’re not going to have law and order,” Trump said.
Biden – who has been running, or thinking about running for President for around 40 years – has always been the runner-up, the failed candidate, the archetypal senator known for gaffes. A man who got close to the Oval Office, but never close enough
That changed Thursday night, as he stood in darkness in Wilmington, Delaware, before walking to his lectern as the lights bathed him in light, stagecraft intended as a metaphor for his campaign’s main theme.
Biden was more confident, assured and purposeful than he has ever appeared in his public life. Apart from a few stumbles, his delivery was strong — with barely a trace of the stutter that he overcame as a boy. Biden’s work to overcome that stutter was movingly epitomized in a convention video by a 13-year-old from New Hampshire who he coached to do the same.
His voice broke only once, when he remembered his beloved son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015 but whose memory was threaded throughout the entire evening as a reminder of the family heartbreak his father has endured.
Biden has a deserved reputation as a windy rhetorician. But his speech on Thursday was clipped, layered in short punchy sentences that underscored what he views as the urgency to turn Trump out of office so the nation can more forcefully confront the pandemic.
In many ways, Biden, against a backdrop of American flags, spoke as though he was already president, deploying the body language and dignity of the office that Trump has spurned in order to stay true to the disdain for government that he has shown since the beginning of his upstart 2016 campaign.
Where Trump has obsessively rewarded his base, Biden – like a throwback to an earlier age – promised to be a president for all Americans.
Speaking directly into the camera as though he were addressing voters in their living rooms, he was in full command of his remarks, sustaining eye contact so it rarely looked as though he was reading the words off the teleprompter. He argued that America is engulfed in a “perfect storm” of four simultaneous crises: the worst pandemic in 100 years, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the most compelling call for racial justice since the Civil Rights Era and the climate crisis.
“Our current President has failed in his most basic duty to the nation. He has failed to protect us, he has failed to protect America,” Biden said. “This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment.”
He called out the President’s naiveté about the coronavirus, while acknowledging that there is not easy way to stop the pandemic that has led to the deaths of some 170,000 people.
“The President keeps telling us the virus is going to disappear. He keeps waiting for a miracle,” Biden said. “Well, I have news for him: no miracle is coming. We lead the world in confirmed cases. We lead the world in deaths. Our economy is in tatters, with Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American communities bearing the brunt of it.”
“After all this time, the President still does not have a plan,” Biden continued. “Well, I do.”
Biden, who has long worn his Irish heritage on his sleeve, closed by quoting Nobel Prize Winning poet Seamus Heaney who wrote that once in a lifetime a “longed-for tidal wave of justice” can rise up when “hope and history rhyme.”
“This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme,” Biden said.
“For love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear. Light is more powerful than dark.”
“This is our moment. This is our mission.”