Throughout his campaign, Biden spoke about how he was running to restore “the soul of America”, and he returned to the sentiment again and again in his victory speech. There was the Obamaesque: “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify; who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States.” There was the biblical: “The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season – a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow, and a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.” And there was plain-spoken Joe from Scranton: “Let’s give each other a chance.”
This pair will celebrate America’s diversity
From the moment that Harris, in suffragette white, appeared on stage to the strains of Mary J Blige’s Work That, it was clear that this pair of leaders would celebrate America as it is – not hearken back to the whiter America of the past. Biden celebrated “the broadest and most diverse coalition in history – Democrats, Republicans, independents, progressives, moderates, conservatives, young, old urban, suburban, rural, gay, straight, transgender, white, Latino, Asian, Native Americans,” as well as “the African American community”, which he especially praised for standing up for him “when this campaign was at its lowest ebb”.
“We must make the promise of the country real for everybody, no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity, or their disability,” he added.
Harris paid tribute to her mother, who immigrated to the US from India at the age of 19, not knowing her daughter would go on to be, as Biden said, “the first woman, first Black woman, first woman of South Asian descent, and first daughter of immigrants ever elected to national office in this country”. It was a night to celebrate finally breaking that stubborn glass ceiling. “I may be the first woman in this office,” Harris said. “I won’t be the last.”
America turned away from its “darkest impulses” – but it was close
Biden only mentioned Donald Trump once, and only in reference to the people who voted for the president, but the specter of the sitting president loomed over both speeches. Both Harris and Biden made reference to the fragile state of American democracy – and the other direction things could have gone. “Our very democracy was on the ballot in this election,” Harris said.
Biden called for the end of “this grim era of demonization”, saying: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again.” Perhaps the closest Biden came to directly invoking the ugly racism and demagoguery of the Trump era came in a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. It is time for our better angels to prevail.”
There is a lot of work to be done – and it starts with controlling Covid
As much as Americans may want to sit back and let a pair of competent, even-tempered adults take the wheel for the next four years, both Harris and Biden were clear that the country is not in the best shape – and fixing it won’t necessarily be easy.
“Now is when the real work begins – the hard work, the necessary work, the good work,” Harris said. Biden spoke of “the great battles of our time” and delineated six key priorities: the coronavirus, the economy, healthcare, “the battle to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism”, the climate crisis and “the battle to restore decency, defend democracy and give everybody in this country a fair shot”.
Addressing the pandemic will be the first order of business, he said, and something he will begin addressing with the appointment of scientists to a Covid transition team on Monday. “Our work begins with getting Covid under control,” he said. “I will spare no effort or commitment to turn this pandemic around.”
America’s reputation abroad is looking up
Though Biden made few references to the rest of the world, what he said of America’s role within it will undoubtedly be reassuring to many. “Tonight, the whole world is watching America,” Biden said. “I believe at our best, America is a beacon for the globe, and we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
For the past four years, many have watched in horror or fearful anticipation of what would fall out of the president’s mouth next. On Saturday night, over the course of 30 minutes, Harris and Biden stood before the world to speak of shared values and aspirations, without insulting any nation or group of people, without invoking hatred or fear, and without threats or rancor.