In accepting the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination on Thursday night, former Vice President Joe Biden offered the country something that has been missing from our politics lately: optimism.
Yes, Biden referred to the present era as a “season of darkness,” and made a pointed, even angry critique of how President Donald Trump has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. But he also made the case that — in this deeply polarized moment — Americans can and will work together for the common good, and that great possibilities are still attainable.
“The defining feature of America, everything is possible,” he said, later adding: “This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme.”
Now, optimistic talk about America’s possibilities has often been a staple of American political talk. Barack Obama famously rode to the White House on a wave of “hope and change.” But even Obama seems to have lost some of his hope — on Wednesday night, he warned the nation of President Trump’s threat to American democracy, and concluded his speech with a plaintive “Stay safe.” Obama’s dark mood seemed to match that of the electorate: Three quarters of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, including 63 percent of Republicans.
Much of that negativity has surely been earned. But the dark outlook has probably been helped along by President Trump’s divide-and-conquer approach to politics. To the extent that Trump offers optimism to America, it almost always centers on himself: “I alone can fix it.” And that optimism, such as it is, is often misplaced. Think of all the times Trump has suggested the coronavirus will simply “disappear.”
Biden, meanwhile, seemed more realistic about the challenges facing the country. And he centered his optimism on Americans and their ability — even now — to unite with each other. “America isn’t just a collection of clashing interests of Red States or Blue States,” he said. “We’re so much bigger than that. We’re so much better than that.”
Optimism, once a familiar force in our politics, now feels strange. We’re about to find out if Americans still buy a hopeful message. Joel Mathis