As the newly minted leader of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden used his acceptance speech Thursday night to lay out an unusually personal message for the fall campaign, linking his heart-rending biography of setback and recovery to the lives of Americans hoping for their own rebound in a season of hardships.
But looming over Biden’s long-sought presidential nomination was the ever-present shadow of another man who’s poised to dominate the final 10 weeks of the campaign and use his considerable megaphone to drown out Biden’s pitch: Donald Trump.
The president, who spent the day attacking Biden in the swing state of Pennsylvania, was the greatest unifying force at the Democratic convention, given that loathing him is the one thing that everyone in the fractious party can agree on.
Biden and the Democrats spent the week prosecuting arguments against him on COVID-19, unemployment, health care, child care, climate change, foreign policy and his fundamental fitness for the presidency — attacks that only presaged a fall campaign that, even when it features Biden, will be aimed entirely at drawing contrasts with Trump.
“He’ll wake up every day believing the job is all about him, never about you,” Biden said Thursday night. “Is that the America you want for you, your family, your children? I see a different America.”
Biden directly addressed those who have lost family and friends to the pandemic, speaking knowingly of the “deep black hole that opens up in the middle of your chest” after a loss.
“You feel like you’re being sucked into it. I know how mean, cruel and unfair life can be sometimes,” he said.
In a sign of both confidence and prudence, Biden and his new running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, will not leave Delaware to embark on the traditional boat, bus or train tour of swing states as presidential tickets usually do, in part because they want to model safer behavior than Trump has in response to the coronavirus.
Yet there’s another sort of safety consideration that the Democrats have in mind, too — the same one that has characterized Biden’s cautious candidacy, vice-presidential selection and virtual convention. He wants to keep voters focused on Trump, avoid unforced errors and confine 2020 to a referendum on the unpopular incumbent.
Although Trump and his advisers have chafed at Biden’s stay-in-the-basement political strategy, the ability of Biden to recede as the president dominates the news — often for the wrong reasons — was vividly illustrated in the hours before the former vice president spoke at the convention.
Earlier Thursday, the president’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was charged with fraud over a “Build the Wall” scheme and, separately, a federal judge ruled that Trump had to turn over his tax returns to the Manhattan district attorney.
The back-to-back moves, coming after the convention got underway alongside the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report about Trump’s campaign contacts with Russia in 2016, were a reminder of the president’s ubiquity, for good and more often for ill, in what was supposed to be the Democrats’ week.
For his part, Trump has not hesitated to try to bend parts of the federal government to serve his political interests, and such attempts could make for a turbulent final 2 months on the trail.
Next week, during the Republican convention, Biden’s aides hope to capitalize on all the focus on Trump by sharpening their criticism of the president. They want to elevate more stories from people whose lives have been adversely affected by his decision-making in the fashion they did at the convention with one speaker in particular, Kristin Urquiza, whose father had put his trust in Trump and died of COVID-19.
Framing their attacks on Trump around real-life stories of regular people, they hope, will prove more effective than Hillary Clinton’s warnings 4 years ago about him as a theoretical threat and malign character.
“I’m not asking you to vote against Donald Trump because he’s a bad guy. I’m urging you to vote against him because he’s done a bad job,” said Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and presidential candidate, said at the convention, making explicit the different approach Democrats are taking this year.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who ran for president in 2020, said he hears none of the “bitterness and ugliness and divisiveness” that plagued the party in 2016.
“I don’t think anyone has ever unified us the way that Donald Trump has,” said O’Rourke.
O’Rourke was also part of a panel of defeated presidential primary rivals who offered a full-throated backing of Biden on Thursday night, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, who said, “All of us, whether you’re progressives, whether you’re moderates or conservatives, have got to come together to defeat this president.”
Ceding the spotlight to an incumbent glad to bask in it isn’t entirely without risk, however. Some Democrats are bracing for an onslaught from the president aimed at Biden’s surviving son, Hunter, that they fear could rattle the former vice president.
Trump, who appeared near Biden’s childhood hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Thursday to divert attention from the Democrat, has already steered his campaign in an overwhelmingly negative direction: Since mid-June, only 1 percent of Trump’s television ads were rated as positive by Advertising Analytics, a media tracking firm.
So far, the former vice president’s advisers have been pleased that Trump’s barrage of advertising — including booking the widely seen banner of YouTube this week that featured ads questioning Biden’s mental agility — has yet to sharply drive up Biden’s unfavorability ratings.
Democrats have good reason to keep the focus on Trump. Since 2016, his political standing has dipped when the focus is on him rather than on his rivals. Both Biden and Harris are prone to missteps when they are off-script. Perhaps most important, the president is the strongest adhesive holding together an ungainly Biden voter coalition that ranges from democratic socialists to 4-star generals.
“Nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars,” said Paul Begala, the longtime Democratic strategist. “And Trump is a galactic threat.”
And like an asteroid bearing down, he can also be hard to miss.
When the news wasn’t coming to him by way of federal indictments, court rulings and congressional inquiries, Trump sought to muscle his way into the coverage of the week.
He tried to draw attention away from the Democrats by issuing a posthumous pardon for suffragist Susan B. Anthony but diverted attention from his intended diversion by using a White House news conference to return fire at Michelle Obama, the former first lady.
Then there was the president’s more standard fare of conflict creation, such as when he floated a boycott of Goodyear and, when asked about the false QAnon conspiracy theory, said only that he knows its adherents think fondly of him.
As for the convention itself, the most memorable moment may have come when former President Barack Obama said Trump represented a clear and present danger to American democracy.
Trump conducted his own, all-caps rapid response campaign on Twitter.
“Trump’s strength was always his performance on the economy and his weakness was always his persona,” said Ed Goeas, a veteran Republican pollster. “And all through the coronavirus pandemic, and quite frankly through the social and racial unrest, all they’ve seen is his persona.”
Goeas said this time 4 years ago his surveys showed that roughly 1 in 4 voters disliked both Trump and Clinton; in his most recent polling, only 7 percent of voters disliked both Biden and Trump — a sign that Trump’s flurry of attacks so far have yet to stick.
The Biden campaign hopes the former vice president’s more moderate image is suited to lure those turned off by Trump’s tweets and tone, and the convention was designed to provide them something of a permission slip to switch sides.
Valerie Biden Owens, Biden’s sister and one of his closest advisers, told the North Carolina delegation this week that what makes the Biden-Harris ticket distinct is its ability to appeal to voters across the map.
“Now we may not win the red states but at least what we will do is we’ll cut the margins,” Biden Owens said. “And if we cut the margins in the red states, then when Joe and Kamala go together and begin to govern our country, they will have a House that’s ours and Senate that we will regain.”
With interest piqued in Harris as the new face of the ticket, the plan is for Biden’s running mate to do a spate of appearances, media interviews and fundraisers as Biden keeps a lower profile during next week’s Republican convention. Harris is broadly expected to play the traditional running mate role of presidential antagonist.
While the Democrats’ convention was full of frontal attacks on the president, even the segments meant to testify to Biden’s character presented an unstated contrast with Trump.
There were tributes to the former vice president’s dedication to his wife, stories of how he sacrificed for his children and testimonials about his selflessness, including how he has befriended those who have suffered loss or, like him, struggled with a stutter, including a 13-year-old Biden met in New Hampshire who addressed the nation in prime time.
Biden returned to these personal connections throughout his speech and offered himself as someone who could provide comfort to a beleaguered country.
“I understand how hard it is to have any hope right now,” Biden said, alluding to the deaths of his first wife and 2 of his children. “The best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose.”