Biden Asks America to Hope Again
The Democratic presidential nominee promised light in dark times and a way out of our present crises
That simple word underlined one of the defining images of the 2008 presidential campaign, and will be forever associated in the political arena with the first White House bid of a charismatic young African American U.S. senator whose election many saw as a significant step in healing America’s racial divides.
Then last night in Delaware, the much-older white man Barack Obama chose as his running mate and who served as his vice president for eight years revived the dream, promising to once again lead America out of crisis. “Hope is more powerful than fear, and light is more powerful than dark,” Joe Biden said in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president. “This is our moment.”
In 2020, hope has felt like a jinx.
During his second term, Obama set the high-water mark he intended to on a wide array of fronts, from same-sex marriage to trans rights, and his first-term contribution to the health of Americans through the expansion of Medicaid at the state level has yet to be rolled back. And yet the accomplishments of a presidency that operated significantly through executive actions have proved all too easy to undo.
Trump, the Bronx Colors-painted face of America’s cultural ebb tide, has in 2020 set a new American low-water mark. His commitment to undoing the achievements of the Obama years — along with the half a century of international and domestic norms that preceded both men — has been total.
In 2020, hope has felt like a jinx.
America now faces an economic contraction orders of magnitude more severe than 2008’s crash. It’s in the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years, and is handling it worse than any other similarly resourced country in the world. And it faces a massive reckoning with structural racism, which Obama’s presidency did not, in fact, undo.
Locked in their homes, isolated from their colleagues and friends, masked and muffled when they venture out, Americans have had to adjust to a diminished world in order to survive these past five months. Our hopes turned primal. I hope I get through the night. I hope I get to see my parents again. I hope I can figure out where to get food.
Biden’s success or failure at the polls will come down to the question of whether he can re-empower those of his fellow citizens who’ve felt so powerless these last few years and especially these past months, who see in our political system only futility and deceit, and who fear what awaits them outdoors in the coronavirus-pandemic world. Obama sought to rouse them in his mournful remarks Wednesday night. Hillary Clinton sought to warn them. And then on Thursday night, Biden sought to give Americans from across the political spectrum reason to hope again.
Hope is not a plan. But in Biden’s telling, it is the necessary starting point toward action. It’s what takes you from devastating loss to repair; the central ingredient of resilience and what makes renewal possible. “United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America,” Biden said. “We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.”
There was, over the course of Thursday night, biting comedy from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a cameo from Sarah Cooper, performances from Common and John Legend, and a speech from historian Jon Meacham, who might fairly be described as the John Legend of men who read thick military history volumes before bed. It was a convention that spread out in every direction. From Billie Eilish’s depressive urgency to Colin Powell’s sober endorsement, from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren laughing about time on the trail with Biden to billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s arch digs, it was a Clintonian — him, not her — feat of calling up the widest possible array of constituencies and seeking to recognize them all. Young Latina state senators, a 35th-generation New Mexican congresswoman, corny and lovely and inspiring shout-outs during the roll call of the states — it added up to a memorable and astonishing feat of television programming and innovation in political convention programming. The explosion of fireworks outside a car park in Delaware added the rousing final touch.
It was extraordinary to watch the montages before his speech, the many video testimonies as to his strengths as a wheeler and dealer in the Senate. On display over four days were a lifetime of chits called in, a lifetime of relationships built, a vast network of people who could be called on the phone, and called upon to invest in rebuilding the country. If Biden becomes president, he will be the most experienced senator in the White House since Lyndon Baines Johnson. The contrast with Donald Trump, who announced at his 2016 convention speech “I alone can fix it,” could not be clearer.