With the opening words of his speech — “I can’t breathe” — Biden adopted a somber, intimate tone for an address delivered far more in sorrow than in anger. To be sure, there were moments when he clobbered the president. “The president held up the Bible at St John’s church yesterday. I just wish he opened it once in a while instead of brandishing it. If he opened it, he could have learned something,” Biden said, adding that Trump could try opening the Constitution as well, where he would find the First Amendment protects the right of the people to peacefully assemble and petition their government. He also bluntly accused the president of being part of the problem and accelerating hate and division. “He thinks division helps him. His narcissism has become more important than the nation’s well-being that he leads,” Biden said.
Biden’s most effective moments, however, were those reflecting on the country’s historic challenge. “American history isn’t a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending,” he said. “The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push and pull for over 240 years, a tug of war between the ideal that we’re all created equal, and the harsh reality that racism has torn us apart.” He summoned the country not simply to embrace the concept that all men are created equal, but also to treat everyone equally.
He did mention some policy items — including police reforms, such as ending choke holds and the transfer of military equipment to police — but he also vowed that in his presidency, he will address not simply criminal justice reform but economic justice, starting with expansion of Obamacare (which he reminded us Trump is trying to destroy in the middle of a pandemic).
As he is uniquely able to do, Biden also used his own experience of loss to reach those now in mourning. He told the audience that they cannot be consumed by grief but must use their loss for a purpose. It was perhaps the most effective use of his own story (losing a wife and daughter, and then more recently his son Beau) to comfort and console others.
This was a call to our better angels. (“A country is crying out for leadership. Leadership that can unite us, leadership that brings us together, leadership that can recognize pain and deep grief of communities that have had a knee on their neck for a long time”). It was a call for empathetic and responsible leadership. ("I promise you this. I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain.”)
But it was also a challenge: "I ask every American — look at where we are now and think anew. Is this who we are? Is this who want to be? Is this what we want to pass on to our children?” We will know the answer in November.
This was Biden’s most impressive moment in more than 40 years of public service. He gave us a choice — to be our best selves or to be our worst, to unite and heal or to go to war with one another. He showed us he can be president. Indeed, he is the closest thing we have to one right now.