Joe Biden on Tuesday asked Americans to appeal to their “better angels” in a speech he framed as a direct continuation of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The Democratic presidential nominee invoked Lincoln multiple times on the same ground where the 16th president stood more than 150 years ago during the Civil War. He also drew on former President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Black civil rights icons Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in his remarks.
“Today, once again, we are a house divided,” Biden said, echoing one of Lincoln’s most famous phrases. “But that, my friends, can no longer be. We’re 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.”
Biden praised Lincoln as a president who “reimagined America itself,” and one who “believed in the rescue, redemption and rededication of the union.” The phrase “better angels,” which Biden invoked, came from Lincoln’s first inaugural address.
"By fits and starts, our better angels have prevailed again just enough against our worse impulses to make a new and better nation. And those better angels can prevail again now. They must prevail again now," Biden said.
He positioned himself as someone who would bear that torch and reunify a fractious nation. Notably, Biden never mentioned his opponent, President Donald Trump by name, in a speech clearly designed to contrast the two candidates.
“Too many Americans see our public life not as an arena for mediation of our differences, but rather they see it as an occasion for total, unrelenting partisan warfare,” the former vice president said. “Too many Americans seek not to overcome our divisions, but to deepen them. We must seek not to build walls, but bridges.”
He also at times made coded jabs at Trump, who frequently claims to have done more for Black Americans than any president since Lincoln, for his caginess in denouncing hate groups like the Proud Boys — an issue stemming from their debate in Cleveland last week.
“Hate never goes away,” Biden said. “It only hides, and when it’s given oxygen, when it’s given an opportunity to spread, when it’s treated as normal and acceptable behavior, we’ve opened a door in this country that we must move quickly to close.”
Biden’s tone was ominous at points, as he contended that America’s position as an icon of democracy was at stake ahead of an election that could very well not be decided for weeks.
“It cannot be that here and now in 2020 we will allow the government of the people, by the people and for the people to perish on this Earth,” Biden said, again echoing the Gettysburg Address. “No, it cannot and it must not.”
Biden’s speech came hours after a Monmouth University poll showed the former vice president with a commanding 12-point lead over Trump among registered voters in Pennsylvania.
Trump tried to inject himself in the middle of Biden’s speech in an appeal to voters in the state, which he narrowly won in 2016 by roughly 44,000 votes.
“How does Biden lead in Pennsylvania Polls when he is against Fracking (JOBS!), 2nd Amendment and Religion?” Trump wrote. “Fake Polls. I will win Pennsylvania!”
The poll was conducted after the first presidential debate and ended the same day that Trump announced he had contracted Covid-19. Trump was hospitalized over the weekend and put on an aggressive treatment course, including several experimental medications to fight the virus, but was discharged to the White House on Monday evening.
Trump’s infection has sidelined him at a precarious moment, just four weeks out from the election and a world apart from the large rallies and adoring crowds that he draws energy from. In their place, the president’s team has fashioned a series of videos, including a slickly produced clip of Trump’s return from Walter Reed Medical Center, to try to reassure the public about his condition and energize his supporters.
White House spokesperson Alyssa Farah on Tuesday teased Tuesday a presidential address later in the day, though she gave few details, such as whether it would be live or prerecorded. Other campaign surrogates said they were holding out hope that Trump would return to the campaign trail in the coming days — even as he is still early in the progression of the disease — and the president himself is itching to get back out.
The Biden campaign’s war chest has also been growing at a rate that Trump’s fundraising machine has failed to keep pace with, creating a cash gap that only compounds further the difficulty of Trump campaigning from Washington. Already the president has faced criticism for using the pomp of the presidency in service of his reelection effort to an extent well beyond that of any of his predecessors — including staging his nomination acceptance speech from the White House lawn in a spectacle punctuated with a fireworks display.
Post-debate, Biden has seized on the dichotomy of being able to campaign in earnest — due in part to his team’s obsession about complying with public health guidelines — while Trump is convalescing, including trips to battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, and visiting key areas like Miami on Monday to bolster local Democratic enthusiasm in the area.
Biden also landed a nationally televised town hall before a friendly audience on Monday night, the type of so-called earned media that Trump feasted on in 2016 when his rallies generated wall-to-wall coverage but that he cannot currently partake in. The president lashed out on Twitter Tuesday at NBC, which hosted the event, calling it an “absolute ‘Joke.’”
“What a disgrace to our Country that FREE public airwaves can be used that way,” Trump wrote. “All SOFTBALLS. A big FIX. Time should be paid by the corrupt DNC!”
Biden pinned high hopes on Tuesday‘s speech, telling supporters at a fundraiser earlier in the day that he “worked very, very hard“ on it because “we have to unite this nation and I've decided to do it from Gettysburg“ The Democratic nominee also emphasized Douglass‘ connection to Lincoln‘s remarks, saying "some people may think it‘s a little dramatic, but I think it‘s appropriate.“
Biden recounted how Douglass reportedly told Lincoln following his 1863 address that it was a “sacred effort,” and saying the country needed to be “dedicated to our own sacred effort.”
“The promise of Gettysburg and the new birth of freedom was at hand,” Biden said. “Every generation that has followed Gettysburg has been faced with a moment when they decided whether it will allow the sacrifices made here to be in vain or be fulfilled.“