Joe Biden on Tuesday excoriated US President Donald Trump’s stewardship of a nation convulsed in crisis over issues of race and police brutality, likening Trump’s language to that of Southern racists of the 1960s and accusing him of sullying the highest ideals of America.
“Donald Trump has turned this country into a battlefield riven by old resentments and fresh fears,” Biden said, speaking against a backdrop of American flags at Philadelphia’s City Hall. “Is this who we want to be? Is this what we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren? Fear, anger, finger pointing, rather than the pursuit of happiness? Incompetence and anxiety, self-absorption, selfishness?”
The country, Biden said, is “crying out for leadership.”
Biden’s remarks, which were by turns optimistic about America’s potential and somber about the depth of the country’s challenges, come as his team moves urgently to draw sharper contrasts between the presumptive Democratic nominee and Trump on traits of character, empathy and steadiness.
In the past several days alone, Trump has lectured governors, called protesters “terrorists,” spent time in an underground bunker, sought to deploy the military and visited a church for photographs while protesters were dispersed with tear gas to clear his path.
In his remarks, which lasted around 20 minutes, Biden both rebuked his opponent and addressed the broader problems gripping the nation, saying directly — in a way that he did not always emphasize during the primary — that defeating Trump would not be enough to heal the nation’s centuries-old divisions and hatreds.
“We’re a nation in pain,” Biden said. “We must not let our pain destroy us. We’re a nation enraged, but we cannot let our rage consume us. We’re a nation that’s exhausted, but we will not allow our exhaustion defeat us. As president, it’s my commitment to all of you is to lead on these issues and to listen, because I truly believe in my heart of hearts, we can overcome.”
Traveling to Philadelphia from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, to address the civil unrest consuming the nation, Biden called the presidency “a very big job” and said no one would get everything right, including him.
“But I promise you this,” he added. “I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued our country — not use them for political gain.”
It was his first public trip out of state since the coronavirus shuttered the campaign trail in March, and his third public appearance in three days.
How Biden handles the coming weeks could define his candidacy for the final five months of the presidential contest — and there is an increasing sense of urgency among his allies to see him leading from the ground.
“This is a moment in our nation’s history that is as unique as if we had the 1918 pandemic and the 1929 stock market crash and the 1968 riots all happen at the same time,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. “There’s a limit to how much leadership you can show without seeing people, hearing from people, connecting with people. Joe Biden has always been at his best when people can feel and see his empathy.”
The former vice president, 77, is cautiously re-emerging onto the public landscape at one of the most volatile, high-stakes moments in a generation.
The killing of George Floyd, a black man who died last week after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes, has sparked an outpouring of grief and anger across the country. Peaceful demonstrations during the day have turned chaotic at night as images of U.S. cities, under curfew and on fire, blanket the airwaves.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus rages on, with more than 100,000 Americans dead, and more than 40 million people who have filed for unemployment.
“We can be forgiven for believing the president is more interested in power than in principle,” Biden said. “More interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care. For that’s what the presidency is: the duty to care.”
Biden, who spent much of the spring campaigning virtually, made a public Memorial Day appearance last week to pay his respects to Delaware’s war dead. He emerged again for a Sunday walk around Wilmington, visiting the site of demonstrations and meeting with store owners, said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., who accompanied him. That was followed Monday by an in-person meeting with faith and community leaders at a historic black church.
Such activity “shows you his heart and his understanding of the urgency of this moment,” Coons said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he went to Minneapolis.”
A leader, Coons added, “takes some risks to hear people and to respect them.”
Yet polling shows that Biden still has work to do in communicating that image to the nation.
A Washington Post-ABC poll over the weekend found Biden with a 10 percentage point lead over Trump — but Trump bested Biden on the question of who is a strong leader. Fifty percent of those surveyed said they held that view of Trump and 49% said they did not, while 43% said they saw Biden as a strong leader and 49% did not.
The activity that Biden has pursued so far, when many Americans are still under lockdown and health risks remain, stops well short of traditional rallies, live news conferences and other events that often drive television coverage, and his advisers have been openly frustrated about the lack of airtime he has received, although his Tuesday speech received widespread attention and coverage.
He is expected to intensify his public appearances over the next month — though the pace is not yet clear — with his early forays in Delaware offering a model. And during his meeting with community and faith leaders Monday, he promised that in coming weeks he would be making “very serious national speeches about where I think we have to go, what we have to do.”
Over the weekend and Monday, Biden’s campaign advisers engaged in fluid and evolving deliberations about how best to wade back into public activity as Delaware lifts its stay-at-home order. Internal discussions about how to handle Biden’s public appearances are affected by fast-changing news developments that can lead to haphazard planning scrambles, according to people close to the campaign.
Biden officials are also weighing the need for sensitivity to the fraught subject matter at hand, as well as ongoing health considerations for voters, staff and the candidate himself amid the pandemic.
“It’s a challenge to be in this kind of environment,” Blunt Rochester said Sunday. “We have to be careful for him and for others, and so he will continue to listen to the science. And if there are places where he can be, like today, to get out there, be social distant — he had his mask, we were all careful, but it does change the way you campaign.”
On Sunday Biden spent much of his time listening — to passersby, to business owners and to her own experience as the mother of a black man, Blunt Rochester said.
“The moment right now is pivotal,” Blunt Rochester said. “The question is, what are we going to do? What are we going to do as a result of it? And so as he continues to build his platform, part of it is listening to people.”
Biden also spent part of Sunday calling mayors on the front lines of the crisis to offer encouragement. He spoke with Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis and Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minnesota, his campaign confirmed. Biden asked after Carter’s family and offered his assistance, the mayor recalled in an interview.
“He asked me how I thought he could be supportive of the work we’re trying to lead nationally, and how he could be helpful in that space,” Carter said.
The mayor said that he had stopped using the term “recovery,” pressing the need for more transformational change on matters from health care to the economy.
“January and February were not a state of stability for too many Americans,” he said.