With historic sweep and a call to remember the better angels of our nature, it was the best speech of Biden’s campaign. It was focused and authentic: the man has a marrow-deep belief in the power of personal decency as a road to bipartisan progress. He did not mention Donald Trump by name. He did not need to. The contrast was clear.
Overcoming our economic, racial and political divides will take leadership and listening, the result expressed in policies that view politics as a duty to care, not a zero sum game. “I’m running as a proud Democrat. But I will govern as an American president,” Biden said. “I’ll work with Democrats and Republicans. I’ll work as hard for those who don’t support me as those who do. That’s the job of a president.”
In praising the sacrifices of the Civil War generation, he did not merely focus on Lincoln or the soldiers who died, but appropriately included in the pantheon of American heroes Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Biden did not pretend that history is hermetically sealed in the past but recognized that we all live with its legacy and each generation has an obligation to try and right its wrongs.
In that effort, Biden demolished some of the false choices that demagogues use to divide us: “I do not believe we have to choose between law and order and racial justice in America.” With pro-Trump protesters flanking the sidelines, he pointed out simply: “This pandemic is not a red-state or blue-state issue … it’s a virus — it’s not a political weapon.”
But Biden’s Gettysburg Address was not designed to be a speech about current events or specific policy solutions. Freed from those everyday campaign obligations and political conventions, Biden was able to distill his vision for the presidency as a promise to keep: “I will raise hope, not fear. Peace, not violence. Generosity, not greed. And light, not darkness. I’ll be a president who appeals to the best in us, not the worst.”
In the process, Joe Biden may have swayed some votes, but more importantly — in a disorienting and divisive time — he reminded us what an American president is supposed to sound like.