Joe Biden ran jauntily on to the stage, wearing a black face mask but suddenly looking several years younger. Looking, in fact, like millions of Americans felt, with burdens to bear but a spring in his step.
The new US president-elect offered a Saturday night speech that did not brag or name call, did not demonise immigrants and people of colour, did not send TV networks and social media into meltdown and did not murder the English language.
After the mental and moral exhaustion of the past four years, Biden made America sane again in 15 minutes. It was an exorcism of sorts, from American carnage to American renewal.
Donald Trump’s performative populism revealed a Biden-shaped hole that America never knew it had. It has been widely noted that the unthinkable losses he endured in his long life made him the right person at the right time for a grieving, coronavirus-ravaged America.
But his political setbacks also strike a chord as a model of perseverance, an everyman who had shrugged off life’s disappointments and kept smiling. His runs for president in 1998 and 2008 crashed and burned, and when Barack Obama failed to encourage him to try again in 2016, that appeared to be the end of the road.
Instead he came back for one final act that rendered him the hero of his own story, not a supporting player in someone else’s. Biden proved not to be a Salieri to Obama’s Mozart. It was a victory for solid, unspectacular strivers everywhere. Such humility is essential at this moment of division. It produces magnanimity rather than crowing over the losing side.
“For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of times myself,” he said wryly. “But now, let’s give each other a chance.
“It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again. Listen to each other again. And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans. They’re Americans.
“The Bible tells us to everything there is a season, a time to build, a time to reap, and a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.”
Whereas Trump always made it about himself, Biden, who gained more votes than any presidential candidate in history, recognised whom he had to thank for victory. “Especially those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African American community stood up again for me,” he said. “You always had my back and I’ll have yours.”
Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and pale blue tie, he stood at a wooden lectern on a stage erected in a car park in his home city of Wilmington, Delaware. Hundreds of mask-wearing people cheered, whistled and waved flags at the drive-in rally in a stark reversal of the wake that greeted Hillary Clinton’s defeat four years ago.
But the presidency can prove a poisoned chalice. When Obama was elected in 2008 and inherited the great recession, the satirical Onion website ran the headline: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” Now Biden’s in-tray includes a pandemic surging to record levels, an economy in disarray again and the open wounds of racial injustice. Old Man Given Nation’s Worst Job?
Biden also seems likely to face a Republican-controlled Senate led by the implacable Mitch McConnell, raising the grim prospect of Washington gridlock and hyper-partisanship. He acknowledged the rocky road ahead: “I ran as a proud Democrat. I will now be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did.
“Let this grim era of demonisation in America begin to end – here and now. 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. It’s a choice we make.
“And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate. And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to cooperate.”
How could a country’s pendulum swing from George W Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden? The president-elect acknowledged that contradictions are inherent in the national character: “I’ve long talked about the battle for the soul of America. We must restore the soul of America. Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. And what presidents say in this battle matters. It’s time for our better angels to prevail.”
Trump, of course, has still refused to concede defeat. Yet Saturday’s events moved with an inexorable momentum of their own, sending a message to the world: a would-be strongman intent on enriching himself and his family was rejected. To some international observers, it felt like a dictator had been overthrown. The centre still holds, the system still works.
Senator Kamala Harris, about to become the first woman and first woman of color to serve as vice-president, said: “When our very democracy was on the ballot in this election, with the very soul of America at stake, and the world watching, you ushered in a new day for America.”
Harris walked on stage in suffragist white to the sound of Work That by Mary J Blige. If anything, the tone was even more radically anti-Trumpian. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” she said.
When both speeches were done, the future first lady, Jill Biden, and other family members joined the president-elect on stage. Secret service personnel looked nervous as Biden waved to acquaintances while paying little attention to bulletproof glass.
Biden himself appeared startled when confetti was fired into the night sky. He smiled when fireworks patterned out red, white and blue stars, the “Biden” logo and a map of the US. And he gaped in wonder when they formed the number “46”. Perhaps, after all those disappointments and dark nights of the soul, it had always been written in the stars.