Speech by Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden, August 31, 2020, Pittsburgh PA
One reason it is never wise to label a speech the biggest of someone’s life is that bigness often creates situations that will be even bigger.
We did not have to wait long for that to happen to Joe Biden, he of fifty years in the public eye. Scarcely eleven days after Biden delivered his nomination acceptance speech [See Recap #87, “Joe Biden is Very Much Awake”] a major test arose for him, his party, and the nation. Biden has been baited by Trump and questioned by others as to when he would “emerge from his basement” to speak from a location not close to his Wilmington home. And the president, having declared the White House his home in his nomination acceptance speech, has reacted to unrest in Kenosha WI and Portland OR by fomenting vigilantism, something no president in the modern era and not even George C. Wallace in his ornery days ever did. In a fusillade of weekend tweets Trump all but played “Ride of the Valkyries” for the “cruise rally” of supporters who drove into Portland looking for trouble. One of them was killed. Two have died in Kenosha, at the hands of a teen-ager with an assault weapon.
So Biden had to speak and quickly before Trump’s scheduled visit to Kenosha today. The issue was the violence that, while still contained on a national scale, has exploded on media screens and in American minds. From a campaign strategy perspective, the overriding question was whether “law and order” will come to frame the general election as its key issue. There is, after all, something else going on in America right now.
Campaign strategy entails rhetorical tactics. Would Biden condemn the left in a “Sister Souljah Moment”? Would he assign blame to Trump for stirring up violence on the right? What would he have to say about the catalyzing controversy, police use of force on persons of color? How would he re-assert his policy position of favoring federal aid to police departments conditioned on reforms over what Republicans have repeatedly mischaracterized as a call to “defund” the police? Finally, what tone would Biden adopt in taking up these questions? He could neither match nor ignore the bullying to draw a distinction between himself and the president.
Biden chose to speak in Pittsburgh, in his birthplace state, a battleground state, a city with a working class history although quite a new economy for some time, and the city where murder claimed the lives of Jews worshiping in synagogue not that long ago.
The backdrop made it seem Biden had moved from his basement to a storage unit; the most prominent visual was metal latticework. It turned out to be a converted manufacturing space at Carnegie Mellon University, a great choice for a speech about the economy, but of questionable value to a speech about violence.
Biden opened smartly with an apposite FDR quote:
In the early days of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt told the country, and I quote, “The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better. And the American people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder.” Straight from the shoulder. The job of a president is to tell it straight from the shoulder, tell the truth, to be candid, to face facts, to lead, not to incite. That’s why I’m speaking to you today. The incumbent president is incapable of telling us the truth, incapable of facing the facts and incapable of healing. He doesn’t want to shed light, he wants to generate heat and he’s stroking violence in our cities.
Biden promptly took up the questions posed by the situation. We have to stand against violence in all forms, he said. He name checked George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake, but then underscored his assertions that rioting and looting are not protesting but lawlessness, and those who do it should be prosecuted. We must not burn, we have to build he said, referencing his “Build Back Better” slogan. Safety and justice were of paramount importance.
Then Biden attacked. The president can’t stop the violence because he foments it. He’s weak. Crises keep multiplying under him. He sows chaos and fails in the basic duty of the job. Violence will not bring change.
Biden cited abstract working class people, and praised first responders and researchers who won’t give up. We could do better and we have to do better.
He appealed to the audience with a Reaganesque poser: “Ask yourself: do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
He sketched out how he would handle the unrest, noting that he had spoken to the Floyd and Blake families and to police, and said that he could bring the clashing sides to the negotiating table. Next he again wheeled on his opponent, whose name he would say thirty-two times during this twenty-eight minute speech:
Mr. Trump, you want to talk about fear? Do you know what people are afraid of in America? Afraid they’re going to get COVID. They’re afraid they’re going to get sick and die. And that is in no small part because of you.
The punchline came in the form of a statistic:
More cops have died from COVID this year than have been killed on patrol.
Biden did not bring the syllogism to its conclusion: Donald Trump, cop-killer. That’s the classic (enthymemic, if you want the Greek term) way, and it is especially apt in a talk about provocative language.
But then, having roared down the racetrack, Biden fishtailed on the turn. He could have restored to history and brought up Shay’s Rebellion and the essence of presidential leadership in the face of those who would take the law into their own hands. Or he could have cited pandemic statistics in Kenosha and Portland. Or, option three, he could have just stopped there.
Instead, for the last eight and half minutes, Biden went standard Democratic touch all the constituencies and issues, as though this were a State of the Union address and not a crisis speech. He mentioned Social Security, Kremlin bounties on US troops, fracking, and other genuine issues that, while thematically connected to security and justice, strayed from the meaning of the moment.
On the whole, however, the candidate did a good job of inverting his opponent’s foray into agenda-setting. The speech gives Biden a decent chance of making the law and order issue work in his favor by pinning the violence on Trump.