Election 2020

Accepting Nomination, Biden Implores Voters to Dump Trump

The 2020 Democratic nominee manages to unify his party. But for how long?

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 20. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Capping the kaleidoscope of color and youth that was the Democratic National Convention, a 77-year-old white man from a previous era, Joe Biden, called passionately for unity Thursday to defeat the “darkness” of Donald Trump and overcome the unprecedented national crises exacerbated by the Trump presidency.

But the freshly anointed Democratic nominee, in his acceptance speech, also appeared to suggest that he is a transitional figure who mainly intends fulfill his “mission” to undo the damage caused by the “current occupant of the White House,” whom he did not name. “United we can and will overcome this season of darkness in America,” Biden said. “This is a life-changing election. This is going to determine what America is going to look like for a long, long time. … The choice could not be more clear.”

Biden has previously suggested that, once he addresses the problems of COVID-19 and its economic fallout and restores America’s relations with the world, he might step aside after one term, when he will be 82. 

The baton of the future already seemed taken up by Biden’s vice presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris, 55. While asking voters to support “Joe and me” the night before, Harris appeared to be largely setting herself up to take over leadership of the party in 2024 and become the first female president. Her vision, said Harris, the first Black and South Asian major-party vice presidential candidate, is “one that Joe Biden shares.” 

In a high-stakes juggling act that involved placating the young and progressive in the party while reassuring mainstreamers and centrists, the Democratic organizers balanced a parade of old-timers and anti-Trump Republicans—from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to former Republican firebrand Ohio Gov. John Kasich—with an array of fresh, often nonwhite liberal voices from all over the nation, many of them unknown ordinary citizens and front-line responders to the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Defeat Trump” was the singular common message, but much of the virtual convention—with its unique format of speeches delivered from all 50 states and several U.S. territories—was dominated by appeals to support activist movements such as Black Lives Matter and progress for women and immigrants. Nonwhite, particularly Black and Latino, voices were heard throughout the four-day spectacle, but Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton focused on women’s rights on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote. Even before she mentioned her running mate, Harris cited previous Black women’s activists such as Mary Church Terrell and Shirley Chisholm who “paved the way for the trail-blazing leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.” 

Some mainstream Democrats fretted that the relentless multicultural imagery might feed into the clear tactic of the Republicans—who kick off their own convention on Monday—to label the Democratic Party as increasingly dominated by a radical left-wing agenda. Still, even some prominent Democratic centrists said they thought the balance of forces across the spectrum was about right.

“I think the Biden people have been doing a very delicate dance from the beginning,” said Matt Bennett of the Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank in Washington. “They really wanted to avoid what happened to Hillary, which is that 24 percent of Bernie Sanders’s supporters didn’t vote for her and half of them voted for Trump.” 

In contrast to his tepid support for Clinton in 2016, especially after it was revealed by WikiLeaks that some in the Democratic National Committee sought to skew the race toward her in favor of Sanders, on Monday the Vermont senator, Biden’s No. 1 primary rival, “was as full throated in his endorsement of Biden as any of us could have asked him to be,” Bennett said. Neera Tanden, another leading centrist voice who is president of the Center for American Progress, agreed. “Like 90 percent of Sanders supporters are already supporting Biden,” she said by email. Indeed, Sanders on Thursday night joined an extraordinary Zoom meeting of former Democratic contenders for the nomination, including former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who together reminisced about Biden’s good qualities as a man and candidate.

The main reason for the deeper unity is plainly a common desire to oust Trump. Former President Barack Obama led the way in an unprecedented attack by a previous president on his successor, saying Trump has “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show he can use to get the attention that he craves.” 

“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe: 170,000 Americans dead, millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before,” said Obama, who declared that the 2020 vote was so critical to saving American democracy that “what we do these next 76 days will echo through generations to come.” 

Still, some analysts worried that Biden and his supporters were still defining him too vaguely, constantly touting his “empathy” and decency in contrast to Trump while short-shrifting details of his programs. Many voters remain confused about how progressive—and therefore identified with the party’s future—Biden really is. Even Obama spoke mainly of Biden’s character rather than his programs, saying, “For eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision. He made me a better president—and he’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country.”

“It’s hard to know what Biden moving left even looks like,” Bennett said. “He doesn’t think he can carry that mantle himself. He’s saying, ‘I’m the transition figure. I’m here to rescue the country from catastrophe.’ … But if not for the COVID crisis I do think this would be a very fraught moment inside our party.” 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh