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Biden Faces A Convention Test, To Offer A Vision Beyond Beating Trump

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris will take the helm of their party at the virtual convention, with a challenge to offer voters a vision of the future.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris will take the helm of their party at the virtual convention, with a challenge to offer voters a vision of the future.

In a recent campaign ad, Joe Biden is behind the wheel of a 1967 Corvette Stingray, in his trademark aviator sunglasses.

"I love this car, nothing but incredible memories. Every time I get in, I think of my dad and Beau," Biden says, referring to his late son. "God, could my dad drive a car."

It's pure nostalgia. But then Biden pivots to his pitch to restore American manufacturing.

"They're making an electric Corvette and it can go 200 miles an hour," Biden says. "You think I'm kidding — I'm not kidding. So, I'm excited about it."

It lines up with the vision for the future being laid out by the 77-year-old Biden, the ultimate retro politician, a middle of the road Democrat who talks about the good old days, now embracing some of the most progressive ideas of his party. How Biden, his running mate California Sen. Kamala Harris and other Democrats lay out this vision in their virtual convention over the next week is important.

Presidential elections are won by the candidate who presents the most compelling vision for the future, and the convention is an opportunity for Biden and Harris to convince voters not just that President Trump has failed today, but that Democrats will make Americans' lives safer and more prosperous tomorrow.

Biden's vision is a combination of old and new, according to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a campaign surrogate.

"Let's take the best of what our country is, that proud manufacturing tradition, that notion that you ought to have a fair shot no matter where you live," Warner said. "Let's marry it with a vision for the future that says we can build the autos of the future that will also save our planet."

Biden calls his vision "Build Back Better," and it includes big investments in the public health system, green infrastructure and American manufacturing, paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. He says he'll be tougher on Wall Street — a change from the Obama-Biden administration, criticized for the lack of any prosecution of senior Wall Street bankers after the financial crisis that triggered the Great Recession. He also wants to expand Obamacare with a public option, as well as address systemic racism in policing, homeownership and federal contracting.

Many of Biden's plans are longstanding Democratic Party goals, but they've been adapted to address racial inequities and climate change.

"When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is 'hoax.' When I think about climate change, the word I think of is 'jobs,' " Biden said last month. "Good-paying union jobs that will put Americans to work making the air cleaner for our kids to breathe, restoring our crumbling roads and bridges and ports, making it faster, cheaper and cleaner to transport American-made goods all across the country and around the world."

The rap on Biden for most of the year was that he was the candidate of restoration, looking to return to the good old Obama days. Then the pandemic happened, George Floyd was killed, and the country was forced to confront systemic racism. All of a sudden, Biden, as the head of the party that believes in activist government, was given a new opportunity to recast his agenda with a forward-looking vision of what government should do.

"The thing about the American people is, we really don't like government as a concept. We do love government, however, when there's an emergency," said Elaine Kamarck, a member of the Democratic National Committee who ran a program tasked with reinventing government in the Clinton White House. "So, whenever there's an emergency, the first question is, where's the government? And the first criticism is the government didn't do enough or the government screwed this up."

That is the core of Biden's argument: Donald Trump thinks government is a swamp, while Joe Biden thinks government can be a solution to America's ills.

"The pandemic and our response to it, as well as the Floyd events, have really shown us just how ruptured our social contract is. We don't actually think of ourselves as all in it together," said professor Danielle Allen, a political theorist and director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

Allen was skeptical at first that Biden could have a vision for the future, but no more: "I do think the Biden campaign has laid out a vision that is about pulling us all together and that does focus on the key elements that we need in order to restore a healthy, strong social contract. Where we're pursuing simultaneously the objectives of saving lives, securing livelihoods, protecting liberties."

But others are not convinced yet that Biden's vision of the future is compelling enough to get the voters he needs to turn out in large numbers this fall.

"It's not everything that we would want, but we think he has the potential," said the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. He's trying to motivate millions of low-income people to vote, and he says that will depend a lot on how Biden explains his vision for the future at the convention.

Barber has advice for how Biden should do that: "Push the issues that would cause people to see, if I vote, I will get a living wage. If I vote, there will be health care for me and my children. If I vote, the candidates will deal with the issues of ecological devastation. If I vote, somebody would deal with this racist voter suppression that's not only hurting Black people, but it also ends up suppressing the votes of Latino and poor white people, as well."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.