Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
Four weeks from Election Day, with a 16-point lead in the polls, Joe Biden decided it was time to give a Big Speech – and he chose the biggest historical arena possible.
Overlooking the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, Biden invoked the reconciling leadership of Abraham Lincoln and committed to healing our house divided: “We can end this era of division. We can end the hate and the fear. We can be what we are at our best: The United States of America.”
With historic sweep and a call to remember the better angels of our nature, it was the best speech of Biden’s campaign. It was focused and authentic: the man has a marrow-deep belief in the power of personal decency as a road to bipartisan progress. He did not mention Donald Trump by name. He did not need to. The contrast was clear.
Critics may grouse that the promise of bipartisanship is “naïve” – as Biden acknowledged – but this was just not a “return to normalcy” speech. It contained a clear-eyed warning that America’s democracy is in real and present danger, and noted the reckless uptick in talk of civil war from armed vigilante groups and White supremacists. But Biden takes faith in the fact that we have overcome these forces before and emerged stronger for the struggle, as long as we resolved to address the underlying conditions that led to the divisions.
Overcoming our economic, racial and political divides will take leadership and listening, the result expressed in policies that view politics as a duty to care, not a zero sum game. “I’m running as a proud Democrat. But I will govern as an American president,” Biden said. “I’ll work with Democrats and Republicans. I’ll work as hard for those who don’t support me as those who do. That’s the job of a president.”
While Trump has used historical monuments like Mount Rushmore as backdrops for speeches, his vision of American history is a picture postcard, evoking an uncomplicated vision of a whitewashed past that we should return to as some lost ideal, ignoring inconvenient truths. Biden’s vision of American history is about lessons learned and injustices fitfully overcome on the long road to a more perfect union.
In praising the sacrifices of the Civil War generation, he did not merely focus on Lincoln or the soldiers who died, but appropriately included in the pantheon of American heroes Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Biden did not pretend that history is hermetically sealed in the past but recognized that we all live with its legacy and each generation has an obligation to try and right its wrongs.
In that effort, Biden demolished some of the false choices that demagogues use to divide us: “I do not believe we have to choose between law and order and racial justice in America.” With pro-Trump protesters flanking the sidelines, he pointed out simply: “This pandemic is not a red-state or blue-state issue … it’s a virus – it’s not a political weapon.”
But Biden’s Gettysburg Address was not designed to be a speech about current events or specific policy solutions. Freed from those everyday campaign obligations and political conventions, Biden was able to distill his vision for the presidency as a promise to keep: “I will raise hope, not fear. Peace, not violence. Generosity, not greed. And light, not darkness. I’ll be a president who appeals to the best in us, not the worst.”
In the process, Joe Biden may have swayed some votes, but more importantly – in a disorienting and divisive time – he reminded us what an American president is supposed to sound like.