Joe Biden delivered a forceful appeal for national unity from the battleground state of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, as the nation lurched from crisis to crisis and the president continued to downplay the severity of the coronavirus after being hospitalized for Covid-19.
From the storied civil war battlefield of Gettysburg, a symbol of the divisions that nearly tore the nation in two, Biden cast the election as a “battle for the soul of the nation” and emphasized the stakes this November.
“Today, once again we are a house divided,” Biden said, framed by a row of American flags with the rolling hills of Gettysburg behind him. “But that, my friend, can no longer be. We are facing too many crises. We have too much work to do. We have too bright a future to leave it shipwrecked on the shoals of anger and hate and division.”
In a sweeping speech – one that drew on Abraham Lincoln’s address at the same spot, the site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles, and Lyndon Johnson’s remarks from there one hundred years later – Biden warned of the “cost of division” and his fears that partisanship threatened to undermine the central pillars of American democracy.
Biden vowed to govern as an “American president”, one who would seek bipartisan solutions to the nation’s most consequential problems, including the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice and economic turmoil.
Though he did not mention Trump by name, Biden’s remarks amounted to an extraordinary rebuke of the president’s leadership in the wake of a global pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans and infected millions more, including the president and a widening circle of White House aides and allies. Lamenting the politicization of science and facts, he called for a national strategy.
“Wearing a mask isn’t a political statement – it’s a scientific recommendation,” Biden said, a surgical mask clenched in his fist. “We can’t undo what has been done. We can’t go back. But we can do better.”
His remarks drew a stark contrast with Trump, who abruptly ended negotiations with Democrats over additional relief as millions of Americans continue to suffer from the financial crisis triggered by the virus.
The move was the latest jolt since the president left the hospital on Monday evening. Earlier on Tuesday, he announced plans to participate in the next presidential debate in Miami on 15 October, which would be exactly two weeks after he tested positive for the virus.
Depending on the severity of Trump’s case, he could still be infectious at the point, according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden told reporters he was “looking forward” to debating Trump next week, but made clear that if the president was still infectious, the debate should not go ahead.
“If he still has Covid, we shouldn’t have a debate,” Biden told reporters in Hagerstown, Maryland. “I think we were gonna have to follow very strict guidelines,” he continued. “Too many people have been infected. It’s a very serious problem, so I will be guided by the guidelines of the Cleveland Clinic and what the docs say is the right thing to do.”
Before his speech, which was held outdoors, the campaign announced that Biden had tested negative for the virus.
Biden also sought to grapple with demands for racial justice and police reform that have continued since the killing of George Floyd in May. He said the legacy of racial injustice in America extends “400 years, to the moment when black men, women, and children were first brought here in chains”.
“If you say we have no need to face racial injustice in this country, you haven’t opened your eyes to the truth in America,” Biden said. “Think about what it takes for a Black person to love America. That is a deep love for this country that for far too long we have never fully recognized.”
But he drew a clear line between support for the protesters and instances of violence in some cities, stating clearly that he supports “law and order” and opposes “defunding the police” – two lines of attack Trump has attempted to level against him.
Four weeks before election day, the speech, one Biden said he worked “very, very, very hard” on, sounded like a closing argument.
“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.”
But he was optimistic, as ever, about the possibility of forging national unity and finding common ground, acknowledging some may find him naive in the age of hyperpartisanship and political tribalism.
“The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision, a choice we make,” he said. “And if we can decide not to cooperate, we can decide to cooperate as well.”
Pennsylvania, where Biden was raised, is a critical presidential battleground. Long a Democratic stronghold, Trump clinched the state in 2016. But new polling shows Biden with a wide lead.
Biden held a 12-point lead over Trump among all registered Pennsylvania voters, according to a Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday – powered by his strength in the Philadelphia suburbs and his growth in support among people of color.