Let’s be honest: For most of the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden has not met the moment. Nor has he had to.
While he started the race as the Democratic frontrunner, the truth is the party moved left, younger, more diverse, and more anti-establishment.
His candidacy offered the opposite: a moderate, old white guy who spent a lifetime in politics, including eight years as vice president of the United States.
Even as he became the nominee, no one was actually voting for Biden. He was, for whatever reason, branded as being the most electable, not as the most inspiring.
By April, the race had become binary: Biden or President Trump. And since then, Trump has tanked his own campaign, largely over his poor handling of the coronavirus crisis, which has rippled into an economic collapse and a movement for racial justice that the president seems unwilling to address.
So, by default, Biden has led every poll all year, and his lead has grown to double digits in most credible polls just 75 days before Election Day. Polls have also been clear that Biden is nearly completely irrelevant in the race.
Biden entered this week of the Democratic convention hoping to do no harm to that lead. For the first three days, in fact, the focus has been almost entirely the message that Trump is uniquely horrible in American history and Biden, well, he is a nice guy, a decent guy.
In the latest polls, likely voters say they are either voting for Trump or against Trump, but even most Democrats said they weren’t actually voting for Biden. What he stood for was less relevant than what Trump represented for these voters.
This changed on Thursday night. Biden has been in politics for nearly 50 years and this was the best speech of his political life. But more than that, he offered a reason for middle-of-the-road voters to affirmatively select him.
No, Biden didn’t offer a big idea like the New Deal or even a catchy phrase that could be put on a hat. At the same time, he also didn’t offer small details on tax policy or health care. He didn’t utter the words “Green New Deal” or “Black Lives Matter” in his address.
Instead, he zeroed in on the coronavirus and what he described as values as the reasons Americans should vote for him.
Actual words he used: “light,” “decency,” “possibility,” “unvarnished truth,” and, yes, “mask.”
Whereas his opponents in the Democratic primary cast Biden as a throwback to the Obama years (something he embraced), in his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination, he cast the choice in November as pivoting on these bigger values and whether Americans believe in them or not.
Biden thrives on giving a speech to a big audience, but he delivered a well-cadenced speech to a silent room. It did not, as Kamala Harris’ remarks did the night before, play to some audience that wasn’t there. Biden managed to play to the audience that was — through the camera.
Next week, Trump and the Republicans will try to reframe the debate, likely over law and order. Typically re-election campaigns are about the incumbent and 2020 may not be any different. But for a moment on Thursday, Biden offered an affirmative reason why voters should consider him.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.