Not a great speech—but a good one

One of the biggest rhetorical moves a politician can make is to reconceptualize something widely regarded as fated into something that can be altered.

Victory Speech by President-Elect Joseph Biden, November 7, 2020, Wilmington DE

Joe Biden could not rely on custom to smooth his way through a victory speech. It was not safe to assemble a crowd of family, friends, and supporters behind him. He could not refer to a congratulatory call he had just taken from his defeated opponent, who was alleging fraud and gearing up to contest the results. Biden had to improvise. A last mile of road into the White House must be built while treading on it, and he had arrived at the point of both campaign debarkation and succession to official power. 

Biden ran to the mic upon being introduced by Vice-President elect Harris. Maybe to demonstrate yet again that he is not too old. Maybe because after a lifetime in politics, thirty-two years as a presidential hopeful, and nearly a week of ballot counting, he could not wait another second. Maybe it was nerves—or, just maybe, nerve. There were new images, new words, a new tone to put before the world.

Whatever the reasons, the president-elect spoke in a raised register and at a hastened pace. He shouted his speech as if to be heard above the din created by President Trump and his collaborators. 

His remarks were larded with oft-repeated lines from the campaign. But the odd setting of a Saturday night horn-honking car rally imbued them with an Americana retro vibe. And at the key moments of oratorical transition the president-elect rose to the occasion with a clear and precise statement of values that should help him complete the political transition. 

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Ever the pol, Biden name-checked a few Delaware comrades in party and office before commencing with his text. The opening lines laid claim to legitimate authority in the face of wild and severe contestation by going to the root source of American power:

My fellow Americans, the people of this nation have spoken. They have delivered us a clear victory. A convincing victory.

His strong enunciation of the supremacy of popular sovereignty in the American system contained a muted warning to the incumbent: Don’t. Even.Try. It. It did not help Trump’s cause that, hours before the challenger’s speech, the incumbent’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani echoed his evidence-free disputations in the parking lot of a Philadelphia landscape company adjacent to a sex shop and crematorium.

Biden continued with a familiar trope:

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.

It was smart for Biden to use a slight variation on the red-blue-united theme that Barack Obama historically sounded in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech without crediting him. This was a time for Biden to stand apart from Obama. 

Biden captioned portraits of the incoming First Lady and Vice-President (who had introduced him):

Jill’s a mom — a military mom — and an educator.

[Harris is] 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.

In dispensing his thanks, Biden singled out polling place workers, a graceful recognition of their hard work under intense scrutiny. Next came the campaign workers and “the broadest and most diverse” winning coalition of voters in history. He gave a special, lectern-banging thanks to African-Americans, as well he should.            

Then came the all-important passage from past to future:

Now that the campaign is over—what is the people’s will? What is our mandate?

I believe it is this: Americans have called on us to marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time.

A “battle to restore decency” is oxymoronic but belonged on the list. At the top was the pandemic. Biden defined his approach in tacit but unmistakable contrast to that of the current administration:

On Monday, I will name a group of leading scientists and experts as transition advisers to help take the Biden-Harris Covid plan and convert it into an action blueprint that starts on Jan. 20, 2021. That plan will be built on a bedrock of science. It will be constructed out of compassion, empathy, and concern.

Continuing, Biden freshened one of his stock campaign statements into a forceful call to action or, rather, a call for a cessation of action:

I ran as a proud Democrat. I will now be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me — as those who did.

Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end—here and now.

The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control.

It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make.

This marked the creative high point of the speech. One of the biggest rhetorical moves a politician can make is to reconceptualize something widely regarded as fated into something that can be altered through a conscious, concerted, cooperative act of will. Biden termed the collective attitude change he was summoning as an “inflection point.” That was a missed chance to coin and trademark a non-consultantese name for his program. But he did well to group it with the starts of the Lincoln, FDR, JFK, and Obama presidencies. He should aspire to be that big.

Biden reprised the concept of America as a land of opportunity and possibility. His pre-announcement PAC was entitled “American Possibilities”; it’s a word he can make his own and belongs in that program umbrella start-of-an-era term. He injected his stock patriotic booster shot that there’s nothing the US of A can’t do. Then, instead of citing Seamus Heaney as he often does, he turned to a devotional hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings.” Since being set to music in the late 1970s by Michael Joncas, this hymn has become a popular prayer of bereavement in Catholic and other Christian congregations. In a similarly pop religious vein, the post-speech soundtrack included “Higher and Higher,” “A Sky Full of Stars,” and “Higher Love.”

This was not a great speech but a good one in both the craft and moral sense of the word “good.” The president-elect consoled a grieving nation. His most memorable phrase—the grim era of demonization—describes the era Biden wants to bring to an end, not the one he wants to summon into reality. Still, the speech set out an agenda and articulated core values to establish a bond between president and citizenry on which political governance can proceed. Decency, fairness, science, and hope are the ingredients for Biden’s road into the presidency.

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