In a weird-except-for-the-times opening night to his Democratic National Convention, the former vice president’s campaign unfurled an intimate and highly personal messaging effort designed for this particular tumultuous moment.
The first night of the first-ever virtual convention displayed a uniquely Biden calculation about where the country is, and where it may want to go. A demographic and ideological cross-section of speakers kept to carefully allotted and closely timed speaking slots, broken up with celebrity guests, produced musical acts and ordinary Americans from around the country.
The presentation was anything but traditional, even if portions of the speaking lineup reflect a vision of a Democratic Party that some would argue had its best days already. The opening act framed Biden and his new running mate, Kamala Harris, as uniters — as juxtaposed against a divisive president.
There were former rivals, progressive leaders and several Republicans. There were boldface political names, front-line workers, small-business owners and families of victims of the pandemic that has defined the year.
Many of the presentations were intimate and blunt. More than emphasizing policy or playing for applause lines that could not come, the messaging was personal: Those who know Biden see him not only as the right choice for this year but as an antidote to an era defined by President Donald Trump.
“His life is a testament to getting back up,” former first lady Michelle Obama said in the final speech Monday night. “And he is going to channel that same grit and passion to pick us all up to help us heal and guide us forward.”
“He understands redemption, and he knows resilience,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a former rival who endorsed Biden when she dropped out of the race on the eve of Super Tuesday.
“Joe Biden is a man for our times,” said former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who sought the GOP presidential nomination four years ago.
“We need Joe Biden as our next president,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who put his fierce policy disagreements with Biden aside for at least the night.
For all those vouching for knowing Biden, one big question that will loom over the week is how well Biden and his campaign knows Trump — and whether this kind of messaging works in going up against him.
The president has jammed this week with campaign events, as he warms up for a slash-and-burn style of insults, nicknames and mistruths that’s likely to dominate his convention next week, if not the balance of the campaign.
Michelle Obama addressed that question by referencing perhaps the most famous line from her speech from the last convention. She stood by her advice that “when they go low, we go high” — just with a twist.
“But let’s be clear: Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty,” the former first lady said. “Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us.”
In one of the many oddities of this year, Biden has barely campaigned in public since the primaries wound down in March. Some of the most striking imagery Monday was not of Biden at all — viral videos from the pandemic, Black Lives matter protests, the president himself holding up a Bible near Lafayette Square.
They are images that might unite Democrats more than anything Biden and Harris might be able to offer at the moment. But some of them could essentially be recycled by the Trump campaign next week, as the president pushes a message of law and order, and a need to beat back progressive ideas.
That highlights one truth that can’t be overcome virtually: This election will be about Trump almost regardless of how his opponents hope to set it up.