For four nights last week, the speakers at the Republican National Convention imagined what life would be like in Joe Biden’s America. The picture they painted was dark: riots in the streets, economic devastation, a nation gripped by fear.
At a rare live campaign event on Monday, Biden offered his response, reminding voters that the crises Republicans described was already happening in the real America, the one where Donald Trump has been President for four years.
“These are not images of some imagined Joe Biden America in the future. These are images of Donald Trump’s America today,” Biden said in a speech in Pittsburgh. “He keeps telling you: if only he was President, it wouldn’t happen. He keeps telling us, if he was President, you’d feel safe. Well he is President, whether he knows it or not.”
It was a clever way to turn the dark and ominous messaging of the RNC on its head. Yes, America is plagued by violence, disease and economic devastation—but it’s happening on Trump’s watch.
The RNC was an exercise in using the advantages of incumbency. Trump accepted the nomination at the White House, performed a naturalization ceremony as part of the convention, and pardoned a convicted bank robber on air, showcasing the power of the Presidency for his own political gain.
But in Pittsburgh, Biden turned incumbency against Trump. The common thread to all of our crises, Biden argued, was “an incumbent president who makes things worse, not better. An incumbent president who sows chaos rather than providing order. An incumbent president who fails in the basic duty of the job.”
The speech seemed to echo Ronald Reagan’s famous refrain in the 1980 election against Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” While Reagan was asking Americans to reflect on their prosperity and pride, Biden asked Americans to reflect on whether they felt safer in Trump’s America. Ticking off statistics about violent crime, coronavirus deaths, and Trump’s plans for health care and Social Security, Biden repeated the refrain: “Do you really feel safer under Trump?”
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For the Democratic nominee, it was also a chance to push back on some of the false talking points promoted by the Trump campaign, including that Biden supports the looting at protests and embraces socialism.
Biden has been clear from the beginning of his campaign about his positions on these issues. He supports Black Lives Matter and the movement for racial justice, but has repeatedly condemned violence and looting at protests and has resisted calls to defund the police.
“I want to be clear about this: Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting,” Biden said near the beginning of his speech. “None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness—plain and simple.”
As for the socialist label, Biden shrugged off the charge as patently ridiculous. “You know me. You know my heart. You know my story, my family’s story,” he said. “Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
Biden also clarified his position on fracking, which is especially important in a state like Pennsylvania. His position on the issue has at times been confusing: he has called for a transition away from fossil fuels, and in a March debate, he said he was for “no new fracking,” before walking back the comment to clarify that it only applied to federal lands. But this time, he was unequivocal: “I’m not for banning fracking,” he said on Monday. “Let’s say that again: I’m not for banning fracking—no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”
With signs that the polls may be beginning to tighten and many Democrats worrying that widespread civil unrest benefits Trump, Biden’s speech was a full-throated attempt attempt to neutralize the RNC’s portrayal of him as scary and soft. “Donald Trump is determined to instill fear in America. That is what his entire campaign for presidency has come down to: Fear,” Biden said. “But I believe Americans are stronger than that. I believe we will be guided by the words of Pope John Paul II. Words drawn from Scripture: “Be not afraid.”