When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, he gave a speech remembered for its soaring rhetoric about renewing “the American promise”. When his former vice-president, Joe Biden, accepts the presidential nomination on Thursday night, he is expected to aim for something a bit different: basic reassurance.
Reassurance that millions of jobs lost in the last six months can be recovered. Reassurance that help is on the way in combating the coronavirus. Reassurance that a baseline of decent conduct still pertains in public life.
The task is not to inspire, political advisers to Biden say. The task is to relate, and to remind voters from both parties, or no party, about something they might miss out of Washington.
Opening a new chapter in a 50-year political career, Biden will accept his charge in the climactic speech of the Democratic national convention, bringing to a close four nights of political cheerleading, policy-hashing and Donald Trump-bashing.
The event at times has come across as an incomprehensible digital patchwork, and in other moments – in the testimony of those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19, and the historic nomination of the first woman of color as vice-president – has sent tremors of hope and expectation through Democratic circles about the party’s prospects in November.
But it is up to Biden to deliver the crowning moment, in remarks that millions of Americans will follow on the official convention live stream, over social media or through video clips circulating before the Republicans get their own national convention under way next Monday.
“He recognizes this isn’t about Donald Trump, it’s not about Joe Biden, it’s about us,” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a close Biden ally, told Reuters. “And it’s about who’s going to move us forward in a way that reminds us of the best in America, not the worst.”
The president seems determined to interrupt the moment, planning a rally on Thursday afternoon outside Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Trump has held similar rallies in recent days at airports in Wisconsin and Minnesota, with social distancing measures for the crowd.
The incursion into Pennsylvania, which Trump flipped from the Democrats in 2016 but where polling averages currently have Biden ahead of Trump by more than six points, was taken as a particularly flagrant move. A Trump campaign spokesperson told the Associated Press that Trump would highlight “a half-century of Joe Biden failing America”.
“This sideshow is a pathetic attempt to distract from the fact that Trump’s presidency stands for nothing but crises, lies and division,” said a Biden spokesman, Andrew Bates.
It is seen as one of his political strengths that Biden has in the past been able to connect with the demographic that shapes the core of Trump supporters, including white, low-income voters without a college degree.
But the challenge for Biden on Thursday, in the view of some analysts, was to connect with his own party. As a septuagenerian Washington veteran, Biden was the clear pick of Democratic primary voters, but the progressive left has shown some discomfort with the nominee, 12 years after the party elected the first black president and four years after it elevated the first female presidential nominee from a major party.
In a nod to the party’s pluralism, Biden was to be preceded on Thursday night by prominent progressives including the New Jersey senator Cory Booker and by elected female officials who were seriously considered as vice-presidential picks, including Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Senators Tammy Baldwin and Tammy Duckworth. Pete Buttigieg, who broke ground this spring as an openly gay presidential candidate, was also scheduled to speak.
The Democrats saved some big names from outside the political realm for their big finale. The proceedings were to be hosted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of the long-running political satire Veep, with musical performances slated from the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), John Legend and Common.
As the night wears on, however, the event seemed designed to highlight the big-tent nature of the Democratic party, rather than its grassroots and activist fervor.
Both Andrew Yang, a businessman who scored a breakout success among independents as a presidential candidate touting a universal basic income, and Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former Republican and brief 2020 candidate, were scheduled to speak before Biden.
Particular Democratic grumbling attended the prime speaking slot given to Bloomberg, especially when the Democratic national committee had been criticized in recent days for reserving few slots for Latino leaders and giving short time to young party leaders such as Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In March it was announced that Bloomberg had taken $18m from his failed presidential bid and transferred it to the Democratic National Committee.
Whatever chaos breaks out inside the big tent, in the end it is Biden who will be in the spotlight. He has taken six Senate terms, eight years as vice-president and two previous failed runs for the presidency to get there. And his job will be to make every viewer feel like he is talking to her or him personally.
In a tribute to Biden at the convention on Wednesday night, Obama said that connecting was what Biden does best.
“That empathy, that decency,” Obama said, “the belief that everybody counts – that’s who Joe is.”