Joe Biden delivered a forceful call for national unity Tuesday from the swing state of Pennsylvania, casting the nation as a “house divided” and the election as a high-stakes contest defined by seismic issues of life-or-death consequence that, he argued, should transcend traditional partisan disagreements.
In a 22-minute speech outdoors in Gettysburg, near the Civil War battlefield that serves as a symbol of a country split against itself, Biden drew parallels between that dark time in American history and the turmoil of the current moment, saying the country was again in “a battle for the soul of the nation,” reprising a central theme of his candidacy four weeks before Election Day.
“You don’t have to agree with me on everything, or even on most things,” Biden said, to see that what “we’re experiencing today is neither good nor normal.”
In his remarks, Biden sought to present himself as a bipartisan figure, eager to paint the most searing issues of the day — the pandemic, racial injustice, economic crises — as American challenges, rather then problems that should be viewed through a political lens.
The message was a striking contrast with the recent actions of Biden’s opponent, President Donald Trump, who Tuesday ended talks with Democrats about an economic stimulus bill even as millions of Americans struggle with the financial fallout of the pandemic. Trump tested positive for the coronavirus last week and left the hospital on Monday, ripping off his mask at the White House, while Biden, who shared a debate stage with the president a week ago, tested negative again on Tuesday, his campaign said. Asked later by reporters if he would feel safe debating Trump — there is a debate scheduled for next week — the Democratic nominee replied, “if he still has COVID, we shouldn’t have a debate,” according to a pool report.
Earlier, in his speech, Biden said that “this pandemic is not a red-state or blue-state issue.” The virus “doesn’t care,” he added, “where you live, what political party you belong to. It affects us all. It will take anyone’s life. It’s a virus — it’s not a political weapon.”
He did not mention his opponent by name, though he delivered an implicit indictment of Trump’s handling of the virus and suggested that the president had stoked an environment where hate thrives — an argument he has made far more directly on many other occasions.
Still, Biden was defiant in expressing belief in reaching out to Republicans even at a moment of staggering political polarization, a view that has drawn skepticism from many in his party. And he pointed to American traumas of the past — in particular the Civil War — both as a warning and as evidence that the country is capable of overcoming even the most corrosive divisions.
“Today, once again, we are a house divided, but that, my friends, can no longer be,” Biden said, invoking Abraham Lincoln. “We are facing too many crises, we have too much work to do, we have too bright a future to have it shipwrecked on the shoals of anger and hate and division.”
Later, in a statement released after his address, he denounced Trump — this time by name — for abruptly ending the economic stimulus talks with Democrats, saying that the president had “never even really tried to get a deal” for all of the Americans who were suffering financially.
“Make no mistake: If you are out of work, if your business is closed, if your child’s school is shut down, if you are seeing layoffs in your community, Donald Trump decided today that none of that — none of it — matters to him,” Biden said. In a tweet, he said bluntly: “The President turned his back on you.”
Though it is perhaps too soon for the address to amount to a closing argument in the 2020 campaign, his remarks suggested that he intends to end his bid for the White House as he began it: by framing the election as a national emergency whose outcome will determine the trajectory and the character of the country for years to come.
Nodding to the latest chaos fueled by Trump — this time the president’s cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus despite being sickened by it himself — Biden built on his long-standing arguments about the need for calm and for the possibility of finding common ground.
“As I look across America today, I’m concerned,” Biden said. “The country is in a dangerous place. Our trust in each other is ebbing. Hope seems elusive.”
Too many Americans, he said, are engaged in “total, unrelenting, partisan warfare.”
“Instead of treating each other’s party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy,” he said. “This must end. We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in this country, the spirit of being able to work with one another.” And, echoing a message he delivered in Pittsburgh last month, Biden sought to strike a balance between empathizing with and encouraging protesters of racial injustice, while condemning any episodes of violence, aiming to nullify a baseless Republican claim that he is radically anti-law enforcement.
“I do not believe we have to choose between law and order and racial justice in America,” he said.
Biden also described the pain many Black Americans have experienced, instructing that “if you say we have no need to face racial injustice in the country, you haven’t opened your eyes to the truth in America.” He invoked the daughter of George Floyd and the mother of Jacob Blake, and also quoted basketball coach Doc Rivers, who spoke emotionally this summer of a country that “does not love us back.”
“I think about that,” Biden said. “I think about what it takes for a Black person to love America. That is a deep love for this country that has for far too long never been recognized.”
In other ways, the speech — and its focus on bipartisanship — was a culmination of the messages Biden has pressed at key inflection points throughout the presidential campaign, including at the Democratic National Convention and at his first large-scale rally of the campaign, in Philadelphia last spring.
Biden faces an uphill battle to win over Republican voters in Pennsylvania. Just 15% of likely GOP voters in the state have a positive view of him, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll released this week.
But among independent voters in the Keystone State, he is viewed more favorably: 54% see him positively, while 44% see him negatively. There have also been some signs of Biden’s ability to connect with the kinds of Americans who voted third-party in 2016 because they disliked both presidential candidates at the time.
Nationwide, there was some evidence of Biden building more support in the wake of last week’s debate — but not much of it coming from Republicans or conservatives. A CNN poll conducted after the debate was the first all year to show a majority of Americans expressing a positive view of Biden. That was in large part because of a nine-point uptick over the past month in the share of women rating him positively. Among Republicans, his favorability rating was basically unchanged: Just 12% expressed a favorable opinion.
His trip to Gettysburg came as he sought to press his advantage over Trump, who trails in polls and remains confined to the White House.
Biden, who has heeded the advice of experts and been cautious about holding in-person events in recent months, prompting mockery from Trump, is now the candidate who is out on the campaign trail, albeit still with small, socially distanced events that adhere to public health guidelines.
His Pennsylvania trip followed a visit to Florida on Monday and preceded a planned trip on Thursday to Arizona. Biden is maintaining leads or pulling away from Trump in polls in all three states.
Trump tweeted Tuesday that he planned to attend the presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 15, even as he remains infectious and doctors have warned that the course of his illness is unpredictable. In a tweet on Monday, he also indicated plans to return to the campaign trail soon.
Biden and Trump shared the debate stage in Cleveland a week ago, and Biden’s campaign said he had tested negative for the coronavirus twice on Friday and again on Sunday, before news of the Tuesday test.