Democrats formally nominated Joe Biden for president during an emotional second night of their party’s virtual convention, warning that Donald Trump was an “existential threat” to America who had failed to get a grip on the coronavirus pandemic.
The official nomination elevates a historic ticket that includes his vice-presidential running mate Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to be nominated for national office by a major party.
A roll call of the states, reimagined for the Covid-19 era, officially made 77-year-old Biden the Democratic standard-bearer to take on Trump in the November election, the culmination of a quest that began in 1987, when he first ran for president.
From a school library near his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden savored the moment. Surrounded by his grandchildren, who wore shirts that said “No Malarky” – one of Biden’s signature phrases – and his wife, Jill, they sprinkled confetti and party streamers as Kool & the Gang’s Celebration played – a radically scaled down version of the usual festivities for such a moment, due to the pandemic.
“It means the world to me and my family,” Biden said. “I’ll see you on Thursday.”
Biden will formally deliver an acceptance speech on Thursday, from a waterfront convention center in Delaware. Harris will speak from the same location on Wednesday.
Tracee Ellis Ross, an actor and convention moderator, opened the evening with a nod to the foundational role of Black women in the Democratic party and the historic nature of Harris’ place on the ticket.
“For far too long, Black female leadership has been utilized without being acknowledged or valued – but we are turning the tide,” she said. “Hello, Kamala.”
Capping the two-hour primetime event, Jill Biden painted a deeply personal portrait of her husband as man of “unshakable” faith and conviction.
In her remarks, she talked about Biden’s resilience after losing his first wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972, and the family’s anguish after his eldest son Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015.
“There are times when I couldn’t imagine how he did it – how he put one foot in front of the other and kept going,” she said, speaking from a classroom where she once taught.
“I know that if we entrust this nation to Joe, he will do for your family what he did for ours,” she said, “bring us together and make us whole.”
Democrats continued theme of unity on Tuesday, presenting themselves as a forward-looking, big-tent party that has always been at the vanguard of social progress.
Breaking with tradition, Democrats chose not one but 17 speakers to deliver the keynote address. The platform is typically awarded to a rising star within the party, as it was in 2004, when a little-known senator from Illinois, Barack Obama captured the imagination of millions.
This year featured a mash-up of what the organizers called the “next generation of party leaders”, who reflected the racial, generational and ideological diversity of a party increasingly led by women and young people of color.
But Tuesday evening also spotlighted stars from the party’s past. Two former Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, offered Biden their endorsements.
“Covid hit us much harder than it had to,” Clinton said, blaming Trump’s leadership for the extent of the pandemic’s devastation in the US, where more than 170,000 people have died and 5.4m have been infected.
Clinton said that if Trump were reelected, he would only “blame, bully and belittle” for another four years, while Biden will “build back better”.
Clinton spoke for less than five minutes – and many younger Democrats expressed frustration that he was given any speaking time at all in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which prompted re-examinations of allegations of sexual assault and harassment throughout his decades in public life.
Making the case for Biden, Clinton said: “Our party is united in offering you a very different choice: a go-to-work president. A down-to-earth, get-the-job-done guy. A man with a mission: to take responsibility, not shift the blame; concentrate, not distract; unite, not divide.”
Prominent elected officials, longtime friends and one-time rivals played a symbolic role in the formal nominating process, which was abbreviated to a 30-minute, pre-taped montage from delegates in all 57 states and territories.
Recast as a “roll call across America”, the procession began on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and ended at the Joseph R Biden Jr train station in Wilmington, where the all 32 delegates went to Delaware’s “favorite son”. Along the way, viewers at home, many of whom have been living under quarantine, were treated to a tour of every American state and territory.
From the desert of Arizona to “paradise” in the Northern Mariana Islands, a manufacturing plant in Ohio and the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, delegates proudly cast their ballots. Their appearances were replete with elements of regional pride: corn in Iowa, cattle in Montana and calamari in Rhode Island.
As expected, Biden was nominated by Delaware politicians, congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, who helped lead his search for a vice-presidential nominee, and Senator Chris Coons, a longtime friend and confidant.
But in a surprise, Jacqueline Brittany, the New York City elevator operator who briefly met him during the Democratic primary, was the first person to officially nominate him at the convention.
“I take powerful people up on my elevator all the time,” Brittany said. “When they get off, they go to their important meetings. Me, I just head back to the lobby. But in the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me, that he actually cared, that my life meant something to him. And I knew, even when he went to his important meeting, he’d take my story in there with him.”
The Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who earned delegates as the runner-up in the primary contest, was nominated by Bob King, the former president of the United Auto Workers, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman who began her political career as a staffer on his 2016 presidential campaign.
But the uplifting jaunt around the nation for the roll call was bracketed by sober discussions around healthcare and what they warned would be the grim consequences of allowing Trump’s a second term.
Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general who briefly oversaw the investigation into potential ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, was among the early speakers. Her career ended abruptly when Trump, just days into his presidency, fired her for refusing to defend an executive order banning travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries. In her defiance, Yates became a hero to what was then a nascent anti-Trump resistance.
“That was the start of his relentless attacks on our Democratic instructions and countless dedicated public servants,” she said, accusing Trump of “trampl[ing] the rule of law” and “weaponiz[ing] our justice department to attack his enemies and protect his friends”.
Speaking from New York City with a blurry view of the Statue of Liberty behind him, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, reminded viewers that the Senate also hangs in the balance. Once implausible, Democrats now have a path to taking back control of the chamber, as Trump drags down Republican incumbents in competitive Senate races from Arizona to Maine.
In remarks on Tuesday night, Colin Powell, a former secretary of state during the George Bush administration, said the nation needed a “commander in chief who takes care of our troops in the same way he would his own family”.
Powell, a retired general, memorably endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, assailing Republicans for not doing more to root out the currents of Islamophobia within their party. He voted again for Obama in 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Nevertheless, his appearance, like those of other Republican defectors, may help give license to fellow anti-Trump conservatives wary of supporting a Democrat. On Monday night, the former Ohio governor John Kasich, who ran against Trump for the Republican nomination in 2016, sought to allay fears – fanned by the president’s re-election campaign – that Biden would abandon decades of pragmatism and embrace a leftwing governing agenda if elected.
Cindy McCain helped narrate the story of an “unlikely friendship” between Biden and the late Arizona senator John McCain, a Republican and Vietnam war hero whom Trump continued to torment, even in death. Biden delivered the eulogy at McCain’s funeral in August 2018.
Perhapsthe most searing critiques of Trump came from Ady Barkan, a progressive activist who became a champion for universal healthcare after receiving a diagnosis of the terminal neurodegenerative disease ALS. He urged Americans to vote for Biden in order to avoid the “existential threat of another four years of this president”.
“Even during this terrible crisis, Donald Trump and Republican politicians are trying to take away millions of people’s health insurance,” he said, using a computer that tracks his eye movements to speak. “We all have a profound obligation to act, not only to vote, but to make sure that our friends, family and neighbors vote as well.”