WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden, a politician born during World War II whose life was twice rocked by tragedy, accepted the Democratic nomination for president Thursday night with a speech that framed the upcoming election as a stark choice between “light” and “darkness” and vowed to unite the country if elected.
From inside a nearly empty convention center room in his home state of Delaware, Biden vowed to lead Americans out of a “season of darkness in America” that’s been generated by the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic fallout.
“May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here, tonight, as love and hope and light join in the battle for the soul of the nation,” Biden said.
The somber address was the culmination of a decades-long political quest for Biden, who has sought the nomination twice before and spent eight years as close to the job as possible as Barack Obama’s vice president. It was also the capstone of a four-day, all-virtual Democratic National Convention that sought to portray President Trump as a mortal threat to the nation and featured an unusual coalition of moderates, progressives, and Republicans urging voters to back Biden.
Among Biden’s chief critiques of Trump was not having a plan to combat the virus, which has taken nearly 180,000 American lives.
“Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to the nation,” Biden said. “He’s failed to protect us.”
The Democratic nominee said he empathized with those who have lost loved ones to the virus, connecting it to his own personal tragedies. “I understand how hard it is to have any hope right now.” he said.
Coronavirus made for an unusual atmosphere for Biden’s speech — just a few dozen journalists and others were inside the convention room as he spoke, and applause was beamed in to a video screen from remote supporters. Outside, others watched the convention on a giant screen from the safety of their cars, brandishing American flags and Biden signs in a scene reminiscent of a drive-in theater.
“If you entrust me with the presidency I will draw on the best of us, not the worst,” Biden said. “I’ll be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”
After the speech, Biden and his wife, Jill, were joined by his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, and her husband, Douglas Emhoff — all wearing masks — and the group went outside to watch a fireworks display with supporters.
Over the course of the convention, Democrats have cast Biden and Harris as deeply empathetic leaders, featuring stories of them helping others, including a young New Hampshire boy struggling to overcome a stutter, and warm testimonials from family members. Speakers and videos highlighted how Biden endured the losses of his first wife and young daughter, who died in a car accident in 1972, and of his eldest son, Beau Biden, to cancer in 2015.
A range of rising Democratic stars vowed Biden would move the country forward by tackling climate change, repairing the economy, and aggressively combating the coronavirus pandemic.
But the convention has also featured dark warnings about the country’s future if Trump is reelected. On Wednesday, Obama slammed Trump as showing “no interest in putting in the work” and using the office of the presidency to benefit himself while Americans are dying of coronavirus.
“Remember in 2016 when Trump asked: ‘What do you have to lose?’” 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said in her speech. “Well, now we know: our health, our jobs, even our lives.”
This message was echoed by progressive leaders such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont as well as by Republicans who have rejected Trump, including former Ohio governor John Kasich and Colin Powell, secretary of state under George W. Bush.
Trump occasionally tweeted his displeasure at the criticism during a rocky week that included his former chief strategist Steve Bannon being arrested Thursday on federal fraud charges for allegedly misusing funds raised to build a border wall. Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, sought to portray the Democrats as radical leftists, in a barrage of social media posts and ads.
The Republican convention begins next week in similarly scaled-back fashion, with Trump expected to accept his nomination in a speech from the White House lawn.
The 77-year-old Biden, who would become the oldest president ever if elected, is an unlikely figure to be the standard bearer of a leftward-charging Democratic Party, with his somber message of restoring the “soul” of the nation and an old school emphasis on working across the aisle.
But the convention showed that Biden — boosted by a sense of urgency from Democrats to defeat Trump — has managed to hold up one of the biggest and most unwieldy political tents in recent memory. The first-ever virtual convention featured speeches from at least five well-known Republicans vouching for Biden, sparking some grumbling from the left who wanted progressives to bask in a bigger spotlight.
An array of speakers over the week brought prime-time attention to systemic racism, women’s rights, and an urgent response to climate change, while the Democratic Party’s progressive stars made clear they are not interested in a intra-party fight until after Election Day.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told more than 35 million viewers on Instagram Monday that electing Biden in November was crucial, even as she continues to push Democrats to embrace progressive proposals like Medicare for All and tuition-free college.
“We can fight for all of these things, hold our disagreements, and still move the ball forward,” she said.
The convention sought a balance between the party’s young and fired-up activists who are demanding racial justice and sweeping policy changes and the more moderate voters who powered Biden’s primary victory and the Blue Wave in 2018 that gave Democrats control of the House.
“We are clearly a different party than we were in 2016 or 2012,” said Representative Colin Allred of Texas, one of 17 party-designated “rising stars” to speak on Tuesday. “But at the same time, I think some of the fundamental values from the Obama era that were taken for granted, we are now looking at them and realizing how important they were.”
Allred said his 2018 victory was aided by Bush Republicans who knocked on doors for his campaign.
“I think what people are looking for is a political home,” he said, one not necessarily based on ideology — Democrat versus Republican — but “on shared values as Americans” that have been questioned like never before under Trump.
Perhaps the Democrats’ most definitive success was a near pitch-perfect display of racial, ethnic, and gender representation during the convention, beaming a strikingly diverse portrait of leaders and voters into the homes of millions.
The roll call of nomination votes was presented remotely from all 57 US states and territories, against backdrops of farmland, deserts, beachscapes, and historical markers such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. In her acceptance speech, Harris, the first Black woman and Asian American on a presidential ticket and the daughter of immigrants, recognized her “chitthis,” or maternal aunts in Tamil, ticked off the names of trail-blazing women, and walked off the stage to music from Mary J. Blige.
The display contrasted with recent rhetoric from Trump, who has warned his base of mostly white voters that liberals want to erase their “heritage.”
In his speech, Biden connected his decision to seek the presidency to Trump’s positive comments about protesters demonstrating against the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville in 2017. “Will we be the generation that finally erases the stain of racism from our national character?” Biden asked. “I believe we’re up to it.”
Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Delaware Democrat and Black woman, recalled the moment when Harris accepted her nomination.
“When she said — ‘I accept your nomination for vice president of the United States of America’ — it all sunk in, all of the effort, all of the time, all of the centuries,” Blunt Rochester said. Holding back emotion, she pointed to a pin boosting Shirley Anita Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968 — just four years before Biden was first elected to the Senate.
Some hope that in the coming months, Biden and Harris go beyond criticizing Trump and further address their positions on issues such as police brutality and immigration, particularly to win over Latino voters, whom the Trump campaign has been courting heavily.
“For purposes of having the power to make the changes we want, to go deeper on the policy choices, we have to be unified through November,” said Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts.