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Convention’s big message: Biden is a good guy

Jill and Joe Biden after her comments from a classroom during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.
Jill and Joe Biden after her comments from a classroom during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday. (Democratic National Convention/AP)
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The second night of the Democratic National Convention picked up where the first left off, with speaker after speaker praising nominee Joe Biden as an empathetic figure, a caring leader and, above all else, a “decent” man.

The speeches, video montages and photos aimed at solidifying that image came as the Trump campaign released new ads this week aimed at making Biden appear senile, radical or worse.

Party conventions are often about humanizing the candidate, but the effort has taken on a special resonance this year, as President Trump’s reelection may depend on persuading voters to dislike Biden even more than they dislike the unpopular incumbent.

Republicans four years ago successfully made Hillary Clinton a hated figure to many voters, and this year’s Democratic convention represents an intensive effort by the party to avoid a repeat by portraying Biden as a compassionate, caring figure, even if not the most exciting.

Almost everyone at the convention, from security guards to family members to train conductors, has sought to broadcast that message. Democrats hope it will resonate with voters at a time of crisis and serve as a powerful contrast with the current White House occupant, who talks constantly about himself, routinely insults his adversaries and has struggled to convey compassion amid thousands of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The speakers have repeatedly told Biden’s personal story — often emphasizing the moments of personal tragedy — to suggest he will identify with the plight of ordinary people and the struggles of the nation as a whole.

“How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole,” the nominee’s wife, Jill Biden, said Tuesday night. “With love and understanding — and with small acts of kindness. With bravery. With unwavering faith.”

“We have shown that the heart of this nation still beats with kindness and courage,” she added.

She said her husband works for those who are struggling, including “the ones he talks to for hours after dinner, helping them smile through their loss, letting them know they aren’t alone.”

Joe Biden and the politics of grief

The concerted message stems from the belief by strategists on both sides that although Biden has been a public figure for almost 50 years, there are still voters who do not have a strong impression of his character and identity.

Democrats are gambling that in a time of deadly pandemic, economic collapse and social unrest, voters are hungry for a leader who understands their problems and wants to solve them. That was reflected in the Democratic primaries, in which Biden prevailed over far more charismatic figures, and it’s being reaffirmed as the party uses its convention to present its nominee to the nation.

Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, is introducing new ads that paint a dark picture of Biden as a senile, corrupt socialist. In one, the narrator asks ominously, “Did something happen to Joe Biden?” It then shows clips labeled “past,” with Biden in vibrant color, speaking forcefully, and those marked “present,” with Biden depicted in muddy colors, grasping for words and stumbling over sentences.

Another ad argues that Biden is an extremist. “The radical left has taken over Joe Biden and the Democratic Party,” it says. “Don’t let them take over America.”

Biden aides have recognized for months the imperative to give voters more details about Biden’s life amid a torrent of such attacks. Even after eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, some the specifics of his background are not well known to the current electorate, adding to the urgency this summer to spell them out and seek a sharp contrast with the Trump administration.

“They know who he served with, they know the leadership he’s had, but they don’t have that full-color version,” campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon said in a June appearance on the CampaignHQ podcast.

Speakers at the convention have repeatedly used versions of the word “decency.”

“I know Joe,” former first lady Michelle Obama said on Monday night. “He is a profoundly decent man.”

“I know that Joe Biden, with his experience and his wisdom — and his decency — can bring us together,” said John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio. “Joe Biden is a man for our times.”

The theme continued Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Biden “a man with a steady hand and a big heart,” while Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said, “He has the heart and the compassion for this moment.”

Jacquelyn Brittany, a security guard at the New York Times who excitedly escorted Biden to an editorial board interview for an endorsement that Biden did not receive, formally put his name forward for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“In the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me,” she said. “Joe Biden has room in his heart for more than just himself.”

Trump’s name has not been often mentioned at the convention, as speakers leave the contrast between him and Biden implied. But the implication is unmistakable, especially when speakers talk of periods like the years after Biden’s first wife and daughter were killed, when he rode the train for hours each day so he could tuck his boys in at night and make them breakfast in the morning.

“He knows what it’s like to live in a real neighborhood, not just penthouse apartments,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), the co-chairman of Biden’s campaign. “He knows what it’s like to take the train to work, not just a chauffeured limousine.”

Convention organizers on Monday showed a video of Biden and his affection for traveling on Amtrak that lasted several minutes, a way to highlight his connection to average workers.

“I think he’s most comfortable around everyday, working-class people. He just always makes you feel — feel like you belong,” said Gregg Weaver, an Amtrak conductor who used to collect Biden’s ticket on his daily commute. “When he got on that train, everyone seemed equal to him. He had time for everybody.”

After Weaver had a heart attack a few years ago, he recalled getting a phone call from Biden, who was vice president at the time. “The average guy is important to him,” Weaver said.

In another part of the program on Monday, Biden led a panel discussion with participants on separate screens. The potential president was shown not speaking himself but asking questions of others — and then listening and nodding along.

“Jamira, tell the rest of the folks a little about your background,” he said to Jamira Burley, a social justice activist.

“What do you think we should be doing?” he asked Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP.

“Gwen, how are you doing?” Biden asked Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died several years ago in police custody in New York.

While the convention hit hard on the theme that Biden cares, it’s a message his campaign has tried to send from the outset. The moments he spent after his events, speaking one-on-one with voters on rope lines, often seemed to energize him more than his formal remarks to the crowd.

He told a woman in Iowa City that he would pray for her cancer-stricken father. He urged a young man in Keene, N.H., not to allow his stutter to define him — and then asked for his phone number so he could follow up. Biden suffered from a severe stutter as a child.

Even during his campaign, some advisers felt that the public did not fully appreciate just how tragic parts of his life have been.

While many were aware of his son Beau’s death from cancer in 2015, the 1972 car crash that killed his first wife and his daughter, as they were going to pick out a Christmas tree, was less familiar. Similarly little-known was Biden’s childhood stutter and the two life-threatening aneurysms he suffered in 1988.

A message of Biden’s campaign has been his ability to bounce back from adversity, something he has done personally but also politically. His first two presidential runs, in 1988 and 2008, were failures, and at first it seemed that 2020 would be another.

Few candidates in modern history have won the Democratic nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire. Biden kicked off the primary season by coming in fourth and fifth, respectively, in those states.

Then he went on to a resounding comeback victory in South Carolina and coasted in the primaries that followed.

“Tonight we are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity and honor to the White House,” Biden said after primary victories in March put him on the cusp of clinching the nomination that he formally claimed on Tuesday night. “That’s our ultimate goal.”

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