(CN) — With Election Day four weeks away, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivered the most important speech of his political career at the Gettysburg Battlefield on Tuesday, invoking the spirit of Abraham Lincoln to call on Americans to abandon partisan rancor and infighting for a unified approach to the persistent problems of society.
Biden said that when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, freedom was born anew.
“The promise of Gettysburg is once again at hand, and I think it’s at risk,” he said from a stage at the Lodges at Gettysburg. “We can either allow the sacrifices Americans made here to be in vain or to be fulfilled. This is our moment to answer this essential American question for ourselves and for all time.”
The soaring rhetoric, not a frequent feature of Biden’s speeches, came as his opponent, President Donald Trump, languished in the White House after being diagnosed with coronavirus late last week. Trump returned to the White House on Monday night after a weekend hospital stay and staged a photo opportunity by standing alone on a balcony that many pundits said was more reminiscent of European fascists and foreign dictators than American presidents.
Trump has attempted to cast himself as the thin line separating America and a full-blown descent into socialism. But Biden — a moderate candidate — spoke of being a president for all Americans, not just Democrats.
“I am running as a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American,” Biden said. “I will work as hard for those that do not support me as for those who do. You have a duty of care as president.”
The message is in sharp contrast, once again, to his opponent, who has often wielded the bully pulpit in an attempt to punish Democrat-controlled states and recently defended his record on coronavirus by asking people to discount the deaths in so-called blue states.
Biden said he chose Gettsyburg because the division he sees in America is at such a sharp pitch that it recalls the bloody turmoil of the American Civil War, when the partisans of the country were at such feverish odds over the question of slavery and its expansion in the new states that they went to war.
“I think too many people see the public sphere as an occasion for unrelenting total partisan warfare,” Biden said. “Instead of treating the other side as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy.”
He added, “We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in this country.”
The former vice president also invoked the language of Lincoln, saying that the country needed to appeal to the better angels of its nature, rather than cave to its worst impulses.
However, some may point out that during last week’s debate Biden told Trump to “shut up” and called him a clown at one point, not exactly embodying the noble sentiments of Lincoln.
But Biden’s speech, while a genuine reckoning with the legacy of slavery, civil rights, inequality and other aspects of American society that we inherited from the time of Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, is also a politically savvy appeal to moderates — some of whom may lean conservative but remain turned off by Trump’s unrelenting bravado and bellicose approach to partisan politics.
While Biden did not mention Trump by name, he blasted the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Wearing a mask is not a political statement,” he said. “It’s a scientific recommendation.”
Again, Biden sought to contrast his approach to Trump, who ostentatiously removed his mask before walking into the White House during Monday evening’s photo op.
Trump also tweeted about his bout with the disease, saying he felt younger and that Americans should not be afraid of the disease or let it dominate their lives.
After Biden’s speech, the Trump campaign attempted to cast the former vice president as a poor ambassador for racial comity in the United States, saying his past was littered with gaffes and noting the recent comment where Biden said black people who vote for Trump “ain’t black.”
“Trafficking in hatred and division to get votes is the only political tactic Joe Biden knows how to employ,” the Trump campaign said in a statement. “His own running mate, Kamala Harris, once agreed that no one should be taking lectures on racial justice from Joe Biden.”
As the Trump campaign spent Tuesday afternoon handling the fallout of Trump’s announcement earlier in the day that he was suspending stimulus talks with Democrats until after the election — a series of tweets that immediately sent the stock market tumbling — Biden said in a statement after his speech:
“Make no mistake: if you are out of work, if your business is closed, if your child’s school is shut down, if you are seeing layoffs in your community, Donald Trump decided today that none of that — none of it — matters to him.”