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In Election's Final Weeks, Biden Makes A Case For Unity Amid A Tumultuous Time

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks Tuesday at the Lodges in Gettysburg, Pa.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks Tuesday at the Lodges in Gettysburg, Pa.

Updated at 5:55 p.m. ET

Joe Biden, who's long critiqued President Trump as a voice of division and a uniquely dangerous threat to American values, appears to be sketching out a final, unifying message to voters with four weeks left in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Speaking Tuesday afternoon overlooking the battlefield where Union soldiers tilted the tide of the Civil War in Gettysburg, Pa., the Democratic nominee tried to frame his call for unity within the arc of American history.

"Today, once again, we are a house divided," Biden said, echoing the words of President Abraham Lincoln. "But that, my friends, can no longer be."

He went on: "As I look across America today, I'm concerned. The country is in a dangerous place. Our trust in each other is ebbing. Hope is elusive. Too many Americans see our public life not as an arena for the mediation of our differences. Rather, they see it as an occasion for total, unrelenting partisan warfare. Instead of treating the other party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy. This must end."

Biden went on to repeat a promise he makes in nearly every campaign speech: that if he wins, he'll govern for all Americans, not just his base of supporters.

While Biden didn't mention Trump by name, the contrast was clear.

The remarks came as Trump's polling continues to crater following a much-criticized debate performance and amid his decision to continue minimizing the threat of the coronavirus despite being hospitalized himself with COVID-19.

Much of Biden's speech was about tone and discourse, but he also referenced broad policy goals he's campaigning on, including a call for racial justice and police reforms as well as economic policies aimed at poor and middle-class Americans.

Since he launched his presidential campaign in April 2019, Biden has repeatedly returned to the idea of a "battle for the soul of America." Tuesday's speech was a clear effort to place his campaign's closing arguments — both visually and in its tone — into that sort of lofty and high-minded narrative.

Gettysburg was, of course, one of the most important battles of the Civil War, where the Union side in 1863 repelled a Southern invading force. Along with a simultaneous Union victory at Vicksburg, Miss., the battle gave the Union and the Lincoln administration renewed momentum and set into motion the Union's ultimate victory two years later. In late 1863, Lincoln reframed both the aims of the war and the fundamental goals of American democracy with his Gettysburg Address.

Biden's speech comes on the same day that one of the most powerful voices in the Democratic Party, former first lady Michelle Obama, delivered her own closing argument with a 24-minute online video.

"Right now, our country is in chaos because of a president who isn't up to the job," Obama said, before ticking off all the ways the pandemic has disrupted everyday life for millions of Americans, and how the Trump administration continues to downplay its severity. "It's a simple choice, really: a chance for a fresh start, or four more years of this."

The past week and a half has been hellish for Trump's reelection chances.

Before the debate, The New York Times published Trump's long-secret tax returns, showing that he paid little or no federal income taxes over nearly two decades. And in the days after the debate, the president, the first lady and others in their orbit announced positive tests for the coronavirus.

Amid the chaos, Biden may see a chance to expand the electoral map.

Recent national polls from CNN and NBC News give Biden large double-digit leads and put him comfortably above 50%, while Trump hovers at or around 40%. Most polls in key swing states give Biden durable leads as well.

The campaign has now reserved nearly $6 million in ads in conservative Texas, according to multiple outlets in that state.

The Biden campaign has long focused on six key swing states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida. But Democratic fundraising has gone into an even higher gear since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Trump's push to fill the liberal icon's seat with conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett in the final weeks before the election.

The seemingly endless supply of cash has allowed Biden to outspend Trump in most key swing states. Now Biden can commit resources not only to Texas but Georgia, Ohio and Iowa as well — all states that, if Biden is winning, mean he's likely already secured the 270 electoral votes needed to be president.

As Trump continues to sow doubt about the outcome of the election, many Democrats hope for a blowout victory, thinking it is the best way to protect themselves against the president's efforts to question or overturn the results.

Event after event in recent weeks has made that outcome more of a real possibility.

The Biden campaign is eager enough to capitalize on that opportunity that it has, ironically, departed from its extremely cautious approach to campaigning during a window when the Democratic candidate may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Biden stood about 15 feet from Trump for 90 minutes last week when Trump may have been contagious. Biden said he's confident he wasn't exposed and has taken three tests — all negative — since Trump announced he tested positive for the virus. The campaign has promised to release the results of all coronavirus tests going forward.

Biden has continued to travel to Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania — though, in a departure, he has at times worn a mask while delivering speeches.

The Biden campaign has adjusted to Trump's illness in other ways, too. In the immediate wake of the president's hospitalization, Biden's campaign pulled its negative ads from television. That move drew criticism from some Democratic allies.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday evening, Biden said "we shouldn't have a debate" next week if Trump is still infected with the coronavirus. "I'm not sure what President Trump is all about now. I don't know what his status is. I'm looking forward to being able to debate him, but I just hope all the protocols are followed."

Asked if he would feel safe debating Trump, Biden said, "I think if he still has COVID, we shouldn't have a debate."

Still, if Biden's ad makers were to craft a new attack ad, it would probably look like what Trump did all on his own Monday night: Stride back into the White House, dramatically rip off his mask and then record a video minimizing a virus that has killed 210,000 Americans, suggesting it's really no big deal.

Biden didn't directly comment on those actions in Monday night's NBC News town hall appearance in Miami, but he did repeatedly nod in their direction.

"He has some of the best health care in the world," Biden told moderator Lester Holt. "I'm happy it was available to him. It should be available to the president of the United States of America. But the vast majority of Americans, the vast majority of people here in this audience, your cameraman, if, God forbid, something happened to them, they don't have that access to that care."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.