Last night, during the final night of the Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for 2020 presidential election. In his speech, Biden laid out his vision of the current moment, as well as his understanding of the possibilities of the future under his leadership. By nearly all mainstream political standards — except Donald Trump’s, who hate tweeted the entire convention — the speech was a success.
In his remarks, Biden looked motivated, impassioned, and intellectually sharp. While this should be a baseline standard for any party’s standard bearer, this could not be taken for granted in the case of Biden. After several public gaffes, a few less than stellar interviews and, of course, Trump’s relentless personal attacks, there were lingering multiple questions about Biden’s fitness for the grueling job of the presidency.
In his speech, Biden beat back those criticisms by spotlighting the warmth, sincerity, intensity, and charm that has made him such a successful vice president. Regardless of what one may think about Biden’s politics, his strong performance on the biggest night of his political life left many encouraged.
The content of Biden’s speech echoed the spirit of the entire DNC convention. He began by invoking the words of civil rights icon Ella Baker, who said “Give people light and they will find a way.” In doing so, Biden accomplished two things.
First, he signaled a recognition of the importance of Black women to his campaign. Although Black women have always been the backbone of the party, their influence and loyalty has rarely been rewarded. If not for the support of Black women voters in the South, there is a strong chance we would have been watching an acceptance speech from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Mike Bloomberg last night. For this reason, the nod to Baker was a welcomed gesture.
But of course, Biden must do more than quote Ella Baker. Even selecting Kamala Harris as vice president, is not a sufficient acknowledgment of Black women. Ultimately, Biden must be responsible for policy that helps to reduce violence against women, unequal pay, childbirth mortality rates, evictions, and other structural impediments. But last night’s invocation of Baker’s name signaled that Biden may be willing to listen to the voices and values of Black women.
The Baker quote also served as a rhetorical device that Biden returned to throughout his speech. Biden framed the Trump presidency as an era of darkness, marked by a crumbling economy, global pandemic, and widespread disillusionment. These remarks built on a week of DNC speeches that aggressively criticized Trump without even the pretense of restraint or measuredness. This was a wise strategy for Biden and the entire Democratic Party.
While it is important to heed Michelle Obama’s instruction to “go high” in the face of ugly Republican attacks, it is equally important not to frame this election as a difference of political opinions or ideologies. The Trump presidency has led to the senseless separation of thousands of families and the needless death of hundreds of thousands of people due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Trump has further imperiled the lives of those already made vulnerable under the pressures of racism and capitalism. Under Trump, White supremacy has been mainstreamed, normalized, and protected by the power of the state. Biden properly framed Trump’s leadership as a sign of darkness. But, more importantly, he offered a vision of America that could bring us closer to the light.
For many on the left, including myself, Biden’s vision was not compelling enough. A big reason why nearly everyone, on both sides of the aisle, loved Biden’s speech is because he did not hold the powerful sufficiently uncomfortable. Although he acknowledged the police killing of George Floyd, he didn’t suggest defunding police. Although he called for a fairer economic landscape, he did not take billionaires to task.
While it is clear that Trump’s presidency is literally destroying the world, it is equally clear that a Biden presidency will not produce the type of radical new world for which many of us dream, write, and fight.
But this isn’t a normal election.
The country is on fire. People are dying. In addition to all of the ordinary forces of pain, poverty, and violence that visit the vulnerable, the last four years has added a new set of pressures. We must put out the fire.
Biden’s speech reminded the nation that he is fully capable of managing American empire. He effectively spotlighted the differences between him and Trump. And building on a week of powerful speeches from Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kamala Harris, and President Obama, he made it clear that this truly is the highest stakes election in modern American history.
The speech was far from perfect. It lacked the energy of Harris, the progressive vision of Sanders and AOC, and the oratorical wizardry of Obama. Still, it did what it needed to do: make a compelling case for why the Trump nightmare must end on November 3.
Marc Lamont Hill is an author, activist, entrepreneur and host for BET News.