A lot of words, some touching and consequential, some disposable, preceded Joe Biden’s acceptance speech this week. But the two Democratic National Convention speeches that most mattered were, appropriately, delivered by Michelle and Barack Obama. These benefactors and partners of the old pol from Delaware clearly described the multiple threats posed by Donald Trump and made it a moral obligation for Democrats and their allies to end his chaotic and perfidious regime. All Biden really needed to do was to answer their challenge and accept leadership of the cause. On Thursday night, he met and exceeded that challenge with a solid and sometimes eloquent speech that belied Trump’s constant suggestions that he can’t string two thoughts together.
With his signature emotional touches (some anger, some near tears) and without any real stumbles, Biden steadily wove together his and others’ personal stories with a trip through the Democratic policy agenda and a regular hammering of Trump’s record and recent proposals. He began by reinforcing the convention’s national-unity theme without offering any sort of preemptive compromises with Republicans, saying he would “represent all of us, not just our base or our party,” but committing himself to values and priorities his base will cherish and citing the precedent of that hallowed partisan, FDR, who “pledged a New Deal in a time of massive unemployment, uncertainty, and fear.”
Biden’s framing of the big challenges he aims to meet echoed three days of convention discussions and rhetoric:
The worst pandemic in over 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The most compelling call for racial justice since the ’60s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change.
He very simply identified Trump’s failures in all these areas with “darkness,” reflecting the incumbent’s saturnine and cruel personality, and guaranteeing more failure if he is reelected. Like both Obamas, Biden insisted the election is more important than any candidate or party:
This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time. Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot.
He even managed to turn a brief shout-out to the 44th president into a comparative rebuke to the 45th:
Thank you, Mr. President. You were a great president. A president our children could — and did — look up to.
No one will say that about the current occupant of the office.
What we know about this president is if he’s given four more years, he will be what he’s been the last four years. A president who takes no responsibility, refuses to lead, blames others, cozies up to dictators, and fans the flames of hate and division. He will wake up every day believing the job is all about him. Never about you.
That’s about as simple and understandable an indictment as Biden could make.
As one might expect given the damage his mishandling of COVID-19 is doing to Trump’s reelection prospects, Biden began his policy litany with a “plan” to deal with that preeminent crisis, beginning with a guiding principle and a policy specific:
We’ll put the politics aside and take the muzzle off our experts so the public gets the information they need and deserve. The honest, unvarnished truth. They can deal with that. We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask — not as a burden, but to protect each other.
He then briefly touched on his own family’s struggles before pivoting to his agenda for the economy, health care, and climate change. He concluded his domestic-policy talk with two quick and deft jabs at Trump:
[W]e can pay for these investments by ending loopholes and the president’s $1.3 trillion tax giveaway to the wealthiest one percent and the biggest, most profitable corporations, some of which pay no tax at all.
Because we don’t need a tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work. I’m not looking to punish anyone. Far from it. But it’s long past time the wealthiest people and the biggest corporations in this country paid their fair share.
For our seniors, Social Security is a sacred obligation, a sacred promise made. The current president is threatening to break that promise. He’s proposing to eliminate the tax that pays for almost half of Social Security without any way of making up for that lost revenue.
Rebutting this latter attack should occupy Trump for a fair segment of his own acceptance speech next week. A later jab at Trump’s conduct as commander-in-chief in Biden’s brief section on foreign policy (begun with references to his late son Beau, a combat veteran) contained another quick hit:
I will be a president who will stand with our allies and friends. I will make it clear to our adversaries the days of cozying up to dictators are over. Under President Biden, America will not turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers. Nor will I put up with foreign interference in our most sacred democratic exercise — voting.
The focus on voting rights and its connection to racial justice has been a constant theme of the 2020 Democratic convention, and Biden hit the high notes, while again offering a simple choice of darkness or light:
Maybe George Floyd’s murder was the breaking point. Maybe John Lewis’s passing the inspiration. However it has come to be, America is ready to, in John’s words, to lay down “the heavy burdens of hate at last” and to do the hard work of rooting out our systemic racism.
America’s history tells us that it has been in our darkest moments that we’ve made our greatest progress. That we’ve found the light. And in this dark moment, I believe we are poised to make great progress again. That we can find the light once more.
The oldest presidential nominee ever did not fail to make a special appeal to the young people he needs to turn out in November, either:
For all the young people who have known only an America of rising inequity and shrinking opportunity. They deserve to experience America’s promise in full …
One of the most powerful voices we hear in the country today is from our young people. They’re speaking to the inequity and injustice that has grown up in America. Economic injustice. Racial injustice. Environmental injustice.
And with one final Manichaean plea to the battle of light against darkness, Joe Biden brought this pioneering convention to a close, his innate emotionalism filling the empty spaces of his surroundings, and his connection to the Obamas and their challenge being the chief takeaway. The long and sometimes agonizing journey of his political career has reached a summit he hopes to exceed on (or soon after) November 3.
If the Prince of Darkness is vanquished.