Joe Biden has two choices tonight as he accepts the Democratic nomination for President, and they’re both good options. I hope that there has been robust debate in the Biden inner circle about both paths and that one was definitively chosen, because while I can see merit in either approach, blending them into an amalgam to placate the staff will just lead to another bland, hodgepodge, forgettable speech like Hillary Clinton gave in Philadelphia four years ago.
The first option, the one I would lean to if this were a normal convention acceptance speech, is to paint a picture of an America without Donald Trump. In the first draft of this speech, I wouldn’t include his name at all. In a later draft, I’d probably come up with the most brutal take-down line I can think about him and stick it in the final 30 seconds of the speech. Use this time to tell America what the next four years will be like as we recover from this Presidency.
The thought behind this approach is simple. Before we can evict Donald Trump from the White House, we need to evict him from our heads. We have to stop letting him set the terms of outrage. Keeping him out of the speech altogether gives the American people an opportunity to sit with the potential 46th President and feel what it will be like. It’s basically a no-fail approach — viewers will come away comforted and confident that Joe Biden can lead us out of this mess.
There’s a problem with this type of speech, however. This is not a normal convention and the viewership has been down dramatically in the first three days. The only people watching right now are hard-core Democrats. I would expect the audience to grow for tonight’s speech, but the smart strategy for tonight is to craft the kind of speech that people will seek out in the days ahead on YouTube. Just going for the live audience right now is to miss the much larger potential viewership that could emerge in the days that follow. A calm, clarifying speech from Biden will not draw the clip watchers.
So that brings me to option two — ripping Donald Trump’s head off. In this approach, I would go for the most blistering indictment of Donald Trump possible, not giving him a second to stop and tweet about his reactions before he’s being hit again. And again. And again. The approach is to pretend Biden is 10 points down. How do you wake the voters up? This speech draft would go purely for the visceral. It would be designed to make people talk about it and share clips.
There’s another benefit to this kind of speech — it would dispel any doubts that Joe Biden is up to the task of taking on Trump on the campaign trail and performing his job. Showing that he can be focused, sharp and blistering would go a long way to retiring Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” moniker.
My guess is that the Biden camp decided to go with Option A, and that’s fine. It will help with moderates, soft Republicans and, who knows, maybe make it easier for the Trump disgruntled to cross over and help start the landslide. I would be arguing to the end for Option B, though, purely because the stakes of this election are so high, voting could be a difficult, perilous act and Trump will do or say anything to stay in power.
Beyond these choices, there is one more thing Biden must do tonight, and it also involves a choice. What kind of man is he going to present himself as? Like many people who achieve massive success at a young age, Joe Biden has lived with the dream of the Presidency for decades. That’s what happens to a young man of 29 when elected to the U.S. Senate. People start telling you that you’re a future President and, no matter how humble you might be, that has an effect.
There’s nothing wrong with yearnings when we are young — they help orient us to the life we want to lead and can be an important step in creating life goals. The problem is when they are unfulfilled, because yearnings never grow up, they simply fall into slumber and awaken when we least expect it.
John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton all had that kind of outrageous success at a very young age, making a later Presidency seem inevitable. But Biden didn’t follow the path of these politicians. He was on their same arc through 1986, when he announced for President. And then his campaign blew up in a series of ridiculous gaffes and pseudo-scandals. Not long afterwards, Biden suffered an aneurysm that nearly took his life.
He never stopped thinking of the Presidency, and he passed on his dreams to his son Beau as well. He imagined Beau running sometime around now. He tried once again to win the nomination in 2008, and ran badly again. But then Biden did something that changed narrative of his life. He accepted who he was.
Biden could have sulked back to the Senate and tended to his lost desires and yearnings. Instead, he embraced the full span of his life and being an insider’s-insider. He knows how politics in played in Washington like no one else. So, when Barack Obama went looking for a Vice President, Biden played a patient game of standing by his credentials, his friendships and his penchant for deal making. It turned out that this was just the kind of partner Obama needed, and he tapped him for Vice President. In office, Biden governed exactly this way.
He has not sought the Presidency this electoral cycle with that persona, however, Instead, we’ve seen Joe revert back to the young man with yearnings who could never quite reach the goal and the dad of a man he hoped would reach that goal for him. It’s a nice story and I’m sure it has personality appeal to many, but it’s not the quality people seek out in a leader. People do not want to elect the poorly-tended-to Biden inner child with big dreams. People want to elect someone like Joe in a time like this because he knows how to get things done. He’s an insider and he doesn’t run away from it.
It is always difficult for a Vice President to rise to the highest office because we always see that person in the subservient role. Biden is only making it more difficult for himself by also carrying the baggage of his inner child who felt the Presidency gifted to him in a dream and has been waiting a lifetime for it to be fulfilled.
Dream time is over. We’re deep in the Trump Nightmare now and we may never wake up from it. Joe needs to embrace the man he is, not the man he yearns to become. He’s in this spot right now because people are terrified and they have some intuitive faith that someone as experienced as Biden will be able to bring things back to normal. He needs to listen to the people in this speech and become that kind of leader.