This is a very difficult time in American life. My son hasn’t seen his grandparents in months, his parents haven’t had a night out in months, the coming months of “virtual kindergarten” seem like an obvious joke, and everyone is stressed out and exhausted. And my family is far better off than most Americans. We have our health, we don’t have to do anything unsafe for work, we have health insurance, and our son is young enough to see this weird time as mostly an adventure rather than a burden. But things are hard — for everyone.
And Jill Biden, in her Tuesday night convention speech, seemed to understand that better than any politician I’d heard speak in months.
Standing in an empty classroom at the high school where she used to teach English, she said “you can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways” and “the rooms are dark, as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen.”
It’s a maddening situation that calls for better leadership on a policy level. It is also just fundamentally sad. And Biden, who at a young age helped craft a blended family only to outlive her adopted son, knows about both sadness and resilience.
“After our son Beau died of cancer, I wondered if I would ever smile or feel joy again,” she said Tuesday night. “It was summer, but there was no warmth left for me.” But four days after the funeral, she says, she “watched Joe shave and put on his suit” and get back to work. The speech was a reminder that people survive tragedy and can even thrive in its wake, a reminder that a country that’s taken it on the chin in a nearly unprecedented way badly needs.
For months, so many politicians have given us stale talking points lightly updated for the pandemic or “now more than ever” accounts of how this disaster proves they were right all along. Biden almost uniquely actually wallowed in the moment, in its horror and anxiety and surrealism, and talked in a specific way about the lives we are leading and the sadnesses we’ve endured.
A president who cares
Unlike many of the speakers over the first two nights of the Democratic convention, Biden didn’t talk about President Trump.
It was nice. Trump is, after all, a nearly ubiquitous presence in Americans’ lives, a historically unusual case of a person who was already extremely famous before he did anything in politics and whose main political skill is in getting attention. Putting a notoriety magnet in the White House has created conditions of a 24/7 din of tweets and lies and leaks and nonsense that in part reflects Trump’s nature and in part reflects a deliberate strategy to “flood the zone with shit” until nobody can tell which way is up.
But Trump is also so utterly devoid of empathy, lacking any discernible interest in his grandchildren or his young son, and incapable of processing anything through any sense other than self-interest, that any basic display of compassion or common decency is a potent contrast.
By actually focusing on real life and on her family’s story, Jill Biden cut away at one of the odder aspects of the 2020 race — even though Joe Biden has been a figure in national politics longer than many voters have been alive, most people don’t know very much about him other than that he was Barack Obama’s VP and he likes ice cream. More than one professional political journalist confessed to me today that they’d just learned of the existence of Biden’s daughter Ashley. Of course, on some level, it doesn’t “matter” how many kids Biden has or how kind he is to elevator attendants at the New York Times. There’s a big debate about public policy in the offing, and the election has concrete material stakes for tens of millions of people.
But while Jill Biden didn’t speak to any of that, in this moment, her more intimate more personal story struck a chord in a way other politicians haven’t.
Playing to win
People on the progressive left who never wanted Joe Biden to be the nominee have found this to be a frustrating convention. From John Kasich to Colin Powell to a lengthy video tribute to John McCain, there have not been a lot of ideological markers laid down. Progressives want to hear that conservative policy ideas have failed on a practical level and are about to be swept aside in favor of an entirely new agenda.
Somewhat ironically, it’s former president and centrist extraordinaire Bill Clinton who delivered a speech that was closest to that spirit — talking about “good jobs in green energy and conservation to combat climate change” and creating “a living wage, and access to affordable higher education and health care, including prescription drugs, child care, a secure retirement, and paid family and medical leave.” Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered a similar speech the night before, running down a laundry list of Biden policy commitments that he believes his movement for democratic socialism should be enthusiastic about.
But the fact is that Biden has the largest polling lead on record for any challenger at the time of his convention.
And though his lead was more modest before the pandemic, polls have shown him winning the race all along. And that’s likely because he knows a thing or two about American politics on a brass tacks level — not that many voters are realistically up for grabs in any given election, and the ones that are by definition aren’t voting on the basis of coherent policy agendas. The soft-focus convention is high-minded, but as Michelle Obama said Monday night, “going high” properly understood is not about being a sucker. Biden is trying to beat Trump in the election by winning the votes of some people with right-of-center political views, which necessarily means eschewing a hard-edged ideological message.
That leaves two choices. One is to dwell on the weirdness and unfitness and poor character of the incumbent. The other path, demonstrated by Jill Biden on Tuesday, is to simply walk the walk of what humane, compassionate, decent leadership could look like. Of course, what America needs most are effective public health interventions. But Jill Biden’s speech also reminded us that we’ve been suffering through months of a void of emotional leadership, living in a country whose head of state doesn’t seem to realize or care that this is a difficult situation. The moment of connection with a person who grasps exactly how bad things are was, ironically, the single most hopeful moment of American politics in months.
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