Twenty-four hours. Two visions of American leadership that could not be more different.
The first was the sitting president, Donald Trump, glowering in front of a church with a borrowed Bible in one hand, posing for a staged photo op made possible by the tear-gassing, assaulting, and violent removal of protesters, journalists, and clergy.
The second was the challenger, Democrat Joe Biden, speaking live to the country from Philadelphia City Hall. “We’re a nation in pain,” he said. “We must not let our pain destroy us.”
“We’re a nation enraged,” he said. “We can’t let our rage consume us.”
“We’re a nation that’s exhausted,” he said, “but we will not allow our exhaustion to defeat us.”
Biden’s words, delivered on Tuesday morning after a week of nationwide protests against police violence and racial injustice sparked by the murder of George Floyd, were a reminder of what it sounds like when a leader meets the moment — something the current president, by choice or instinct, cannot or will not do.
One common critique of Biden’s presidential run is that he traffics in nostalgia, vowing a return to a calmer, more peaceful time — the Obama presidency — that wasn’t nearly as calm or peaceful as he makes it about to be. “He all but promises Democrats a DeLorean,” my colleague Jamil Smith wrote last August, “powered up and ready to go back to the Obama era so that we can erase Trump from our memories.”
Biden’s Philadelphia speech felt like a throwback in a different sense. There was sobriety and empathy in what the presumptive Democratic nominee had to say, qualities that couldn’t be more alien to Donald Trump, qualities that can feel all too rare in this chaotic moment. To hear a political leader say on live national television that he would not “traffic in fear and division,” that he would not “fan the flames of hate,” that he would lead but also listen — after the three years of this president, Biden’s words resonated more than the typical sloganeering.
The other critique of Biden is that we haven’t seen all that much of him. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the campaign into the digital realm, Biden seemed to limit his public appearances and media interviews. And so there was a sense of anticipation, a bracing for the unknown, when Biden arrived in Philadelphia to speak to a grieving and anxious country. But he delivered one of the better speeches of his campaign to date, even if there aren’t many other such moments with which to make a comparison.
Instead of using the Bible as a prop, Biden said, President Trump might consider reading a few pages of it. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had the time to ram through conservative judge after conservative judge, Biden said, then Congress had the time to outlaw the use of chokeholds by law-enforcement officers and bring a halt to the militarization of local police departments.
On the subject of America’s original sin, Biden vowed as president to work to “heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country, not use them for political gain.” American history, he said, “isn’t a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending.” And later: “We all need to take a hard look at the culture that allows senseless tragedies to keep happening.”
Barack Obama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia this was not. But compare it with “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” or that protesters “were lowlifes and losers” who would be “greeted with the most vicious dogs and most ominous weapons,” or any of the other threats and incitements to violence spewed forth by President Trump in recent weeks and months.
Near the end of his speech, Biden said that this president “has turned our country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears.” Well, no, that tradition long predates Donald Trump; he is merely its latest adherent. But Biden was correct, and forceful in a way that he’s needed to be for some time now, that Trump’s “narcissism has become more important than the nation’s well-being that he leads.”
Then he said this:
I ask every American: Look at where we are now and think anew: Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be? Is this what we pass on to our children and our grandchildren? Fear, anger, finger-pointing rather than the pursuit of happiness? Incompetence and anxiety? Self-absorption and selfishness? Or do we want to be the America we know we can be?
That is what’s on the ballot on November 3rd.