Michelle Obama spoke in a mournful tone when describing the state of America. Jill Biden was filled with sorrow. Barack Obama, albeit slightly angrier, was a man filled with disappointment. Over the previous three nights, Democrats had painted a picture of their country – one filled with hurt, division and severely damaged by the Presidency of Donald Trump. Hoping that Americans after the last few months of the pandemic and Trump’s handling of racial protests, share this feeling of their country there was little policy on display. The thinking was clear. There is a greater coalition of voters to be won through uniting people in their dislike for Trump, than there is in the advocation of detailed policies – that would likely divide the party between moderates and progressives.
Yet it felt as though a vision was needed. A problem had been presented and shared. But no solution was forthcoming. Within this climate, it was time for Joe Biden’s most significant speech of his career.
Biden added to the negative picture of America that had been painted by his allies. He spoke in striking terms of Trump having ‘cloaked American darkness. A season of darkness. Too much fear. Too much division’. A theme of this election will be such negative portrayal of America, the effects of which will lead to the core supporters of each party seeing the win of the other side as increasingly apocalyptic – a dangerous time for any democracy. Earlier in the day, Donald Trump claimed if Biden won ‘mayhem come to your town. Just think of the smouldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago’.
But Biden’s solution wasn’t to advocate an expansive policy platform. He spoke only in broad terms for what he would do as President: ‘On day one we’ll deploy rapid tests with results available immediately and a national mandate to wear a mask’. We will invest ‘$300 billion in research and development to promote biotech, clean energy and artificial intelligence’. Biden spoke of wanting to improve the Affordable Care Act that Trump ‘is trying to rip away’.
Significantly, he confirmed that anti-Chino foreign policy, and a weariness of global supply chains was not limited to Trump: ‘We will make here in America so we will never again be at the mercy of China in order to protect our own people’.
Instead Joe Biden’s solution to the woes of America was himself. It was character based. This was a man who had been through tragedy and who had the character to pull America through. Over the next few months expect Democrats to associate Biden’s personal tragedy with that they claim the country is experiencing today.
‘Of those of you who have lost the most – I have some idea how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in the middle of your chest and you feel like you’re being sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.’
Biden spoke of America facing ‘four historic crises all at the same time’: the pandemic, economic recession, racial divisions and climate change. To each he presented himself as a President that could emphasise with people, care for the country and unite America though his personal compassion.
This was an appeal to moderate America, not the polarised wings of the debate. There was a blatant attempt to assuage concerns that younger voters may not be as energised to vote for Biden, stating ‘young people today, they’re speaking up to. The injustice that has grown up in America. I hear their voices’.
It will be up to American voters to decide if empathy and compassion is enough to persuade them to vote for Joe Biden. In any other election I severely doubt it would be. But as Americans each face personal crises of their own during the pandemic, an arm around them from the President may be what they want. This after all is an election taking place in unprecedented circumstances.
But this is a gamble by the Democrats. Campaigns are long and tiresome. Debates and interviews will not allow compassion to be the answer to each question. The risk is that as the election nears, more than this personal argument will be needed. Also in implementing this strategy it requires Democrats to add to the discourse of how broken America is. One that could make their very promise to unify the country more challenging.
Biden quoted the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s line that ‘History says don’t hope on this side of the grave, but then once-in-a-lifetime, the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme’. Joe Biden will hope that after multiple attempts at becoming the President, this is his rare moment in history where events have collided to allow him to become the answer America wants. A clever strategy – one that makes complete sense looking at the polls – but a risk, nevertheless. Events have time to change the dynamics of this election again and again.