“Protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice. But there is joy in it," Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris said as she took the stage for the first time since she and President-elect Joe Biden were named the victors in the hard-fought 2020 election.

That sentence was the perfect summary of the task that lies before the incoming administration. Biden and Harris must rally an exhausted nation to combat the rising coronavirus pandemic, and to make real the decency the candidates promised but cannot deliver alone. For one night, at least, they managed to balance solemnity and joy perfectly, and to weave those impulses into a call to action.

Biden and Harris visually emphasized the contrasts that make them .complementary. Harris, the first Black woman to be elected to one of the two highest offices in the land, dressed in suffragette white, donning a suit and blouse that under the rally lights shone as bright as her smile. Biden, whose working-class roots and familiarity with grief became a powerful part of his appeal, wore a standard politician’s dark suit.

But they seemed to channel each other, too. Harris, nodding to Biden’s great strength as a “healer,” acknowledged her supporters’ struggles, and then deftly turned the memory of those losses into fortitude for the fight to come, saying the pair had seen "your courage, your resilience and the generosity of your spirit.” Biden seemed to have acquired some of Harris’s bounce: He was clearly so excited that he jogged out onto the stage when his running mate introduced him.

Much of Harris’s and Biden’s speeches consisted of bromides, which seemed like the point. After five years of President Trump’s provocations, hearing Biden tell election workers that “you deserve a special thanks from the entire nation” is the equivalent of listening to a guided meditation video. This is a man who will bring Dad humor, rather than drama, to the White House, as Biden did when he told Harris: "Kamala, Doug, like it or not, you’re family. You become an honorary Biden, there’s no way out.”

How much normality Biden’s supporters actually want, though, is an open question. A highly conventional speech may be a cooling salve on an inflamed country, but it is not yet clear that it is the treatment that will heal the underlying wound. For many Americans, the idea of joy is not exactly compatible with the prospect of a return to the way things were, and reconciliation seems highly dubious.

Indeed, the crowd in Delaware was relatively quiet as Biden made the argument that may be the toughest sell of his presidency: “Let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again. Listen to each other again. And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies,” Biden told the crowd. “This is the time to heal in America. ... Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now. ... It’s a decision, a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, we can decide to cooperate. And I believe that this is part of the mandate given to us from the American people. They want us to cooperate in their interest.”

Any observer of Biden’s campaigns is familiar with his fondness for the poet Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy," particularly the lines “Once in a lifetime / The longed for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.” But there’s more to the work, which was underway when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It isn’t simply a celebration of justice’s spontaneous arrival, but a testament to the power of working past pain, and what lies beyond the desire for vengeance.

Biden knows this: In late October, his campaign released a video that includes Biden reading a more complete version of “The Cure at Troy,”

“Human beings suffer. / They torture one another. / They get hurt and get hard,” the poem begins. And after the lines Biden made famous, Heaney continues, “So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge. / Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here. / Believe in miracles. / And cures and healing wells.”

For now, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s election is what we have in lieu of miracles and healing wells. We’ll have to see if that’s enough.

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