“Tomorrow, when you walk across the stage to receive your diploma, you’re going to enter a world where there are a lot of Americans uncertain and anxious about their futures,” Biden segued, adding that globalization had cost many middle-class residents their jobs. “Some communities are struggling to get by and they’re worried that they won’t be able to keep up. And we saw how playing to their fears rather than their hopes, rather than their better angels, can still be a powerful political tool.”
What followed was a clear dig at President Trump and his administration — even though Biden never once mentioned Trump’s name. Instead, he simply referred to “the past election cycle,” in which “civilized discourse and real debate gave way to the coarsest rhetoric, stroking our darkest emotions.”
“I thought we had passed the days where it was acceptable for political leaders at local and national levels to bestow legitimacy on hate speech and fringe ideologies,” Biden said. “But the world is changing so rapidly, there are a lot of folks out there who are both afraid and susceptible to this kind of negative appeal.”
Biden also railed against the forces of populism — not just in the United States, but globally — and suggested that several of Trump’s policies were misguided.
“The immigrant, the minority, the transgender, anyone not like me became a scapegoat,” Biden said. “ ‘Just build a wall. Keep Muslims from coming into the United States. They’re the reason I can’t compete. That’s why I don’t have a job. That’s why I worry about my safety.’ ”
Biden told the Cornell graduates that he, too, felt disoriented and disheartened as he watched those sentiments being expressed.
“But I assure you that this is a temporary state of affairs,” he said. “The American people will not sustain this attitude for long, I promise you.”
Biden’s speech at Cornell came just one day after Hillary Clinton addressed the graduating class at Wellesley College, her alma mater. Like Biden, Clinton used her speech as a thinly veiled attack on Trump’s policies — even drawing comparisons between Trump and former president Richard M. Nixon. And Clinton, too, avoided mentioning Trump by name.
At times, Biden’s address seemed to take on the feel of a campaign speech. He touched on his accomplishments as a longtime U.S. senator from Delaware and the childhood lessons he learned from his father, ones that he said ignited a passion to fight for middle-class Americans. In recent weeks, Biden has weighed in on the 2016 presidential election, expressing regret that he did not run, and left the door open to a possible presidential bid in 2020.
On Saturday, Biden emphasized the importance of treating each other with dignity and respect.
“You cannot define an American based on ethnicity, religion, race. America is an idea. That’s the uniqueness of who we are,” Biden said. “It’s embodied in what we say we believe. Even when we haven’t lived up to our ideals, dignity has been part of our national ethic. Because we know that if people are treated with respect, if we equip them with care, the capability to care for their families, to maintain their dignity, it’s harder for the politics of fear to find a home.”
And in order for Americans to unite in this combative political climate, Biden stressed the importance of trying to understand one another. One way to start would be by eliminating so-called echo chambers on social media that only reinforced your own beliefs, he said.
“The people I’ve known who are successful and happy are the people who treat others with the same dignity that they demand for themselves,” Biden said, to applause. “To do that, you’re going to have to fight the urge to build a self-referential, self-reinforcing and self-righteous echo chamber of yourself online. No, I mean this. I mean this sincerely. Living in your screens encourages shallow and antiseptic relationships that make it too easy to reduce the other to stereotypes.”
People online, he said, were not “flattened versions of humanity.”
“They’re a whole person. Flawed. Struggling to make the world better, just like you. To make it in the world, just like you,” Biden said. “You have to ascribe to those with whom you disagree the same emotional complexity you know yourself and that you possess. At the end of the day, for a person to be afforded dignity, there must be an absolute intolerance of the abuse of power.”