On Saturday night, President-elect Joe Biden did something the man he will replace in the White House never did in four years: He reached out the people who didn’t vote for him.
“For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight,” Biden said. “I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance.”
Consider the empathy and the vulnerability on display there. In Biden’s greatest moment of triumph – a moment five decades in the making – the President-elect took the time right at the top of his speech to remind people that he knows what losing elections feels like. (Biden lost his two previous presidential bids – in 1988 and 2008.)
Contrast that with the default stance of President Donald Trump: I always win – in everything. Losing is for losers. And I am definitely NOT a loser.
As I noted over the weekend, Biden’s life has been shaped by disappointment, grief and loss – both political and personal. This is a man whose greatest victories have been followed by his most devastating losses, who has seen the seeds of tragedy give way to triumph. He knows losing. He knows it’s part of life. And politics. And that in losing, you learn to both appreciate the times when you win – and how to talk to the people on the other end of the race.
Which will matter to some not-insignificant chunk of people.
(And no, I am under no illusion that the most hardcore supporters of Trump will be moved by these words from Biden – or anything else. Why? Because Biden’s willingness to not only sympathize with those whose candidate didn’t win but to also ask them to give him a chance suggests that the era of viewing people with whom you disagree politically as evil is coming to an end.)
What Biden said next in his speech affirms that. Here it is:
“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 are Americans.”
Compare that to Trump on the 2018 campaign trail, when he described Democrats who opposed the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as “really evil people” and noting “I know fellow Americans that are evil … I’ve known some fellow Americans that are pretty evil.”
These are worldviews that are, quite literally, worlds apart. Trump actively worked to weaponize political division for his own gain. Biden is, at least at the start, trying to remind people of our common humanity. That Democrat, Republican or something else, we have a heck of a lot more in common than we have differences.
What do Biden’s words mean in terms of his legislative priorities? Or whether he will put a Republican in a prominent role in his Cabinet? Or how much he will consult with congressional Republicans? Not much!
But in politics, gestures and words matter. And after four years of the most polarizing president in American history – literally! – that Biden, in his first speech as President-elect, reached out a hand in empathy to those who disagree with him and didn’t vote for him says something about the man and the way he views how politics should work.