Joe Biden addressed the nation for the first time as president-elect Saturday night, delivering a message of unity and trying to soothe the extraordinary divisions that defined the last four years in American politics.
“Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now,” he said.
In remarks before a drive-in audience in Wilmington brimming with longtime friends from Delaware, his home state, he directly appealed to the tens of millions of Americans who backed President Donald Trump’s re-election, seeking to make good on his central campaign promise of bringing the country together.
“For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight,” Biden, speaking at the conclusion of his third run for the presidency, said. “I’ve lost a couple times myself. 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.”
He added, “This is the time to heal in America.”
Biden’s optimistic speech, flecked with references to faith and American history, came 48 years to the day after he was first elected a senator from Delaware. He spoke from a flag-bedecked stage outside the Chase Center on the Riverfront, an event center near the Christina River, where he invoked themes that shaped his presidential campaign.
The message, as it was throughout the campaign, was rooted more in a sense of values than in an especially ideological viewpoint, an approach that helped him build a broad coalition throughout the campaign but will be tested in partisan Washington.
Yet Biden grew impassioned as he insisted that for all of the tensions in the country, Americans still wanted to see their leaders find common ground. He promised to bring steady leadership and experience to meet the staggering crises facing the nation, most prominently the coronavirus.
“What is our mandate?” he said. “I believe it’s this: Americans have called upon us to marshal the forces of decency, the forces of fairness, to marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect, spoke first, telling voters that they had chosen “hope and unity, decency, science and, yes, truth.”
She invoked her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who came to the United States from India at the age of 19, and paid tribute to the women “who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight.”
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she said. “Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
In his 15-minute speech, Biden noted the history-making nature of Harris’ election, and he sketched out a vision for taking on the pandemic, which has gripped the nation and killed more than 237,000 people in the United States.
After a campaign in which he emphasized the importance of political compromise, he implored Republicans and Democrats to work together — although some in his party have viewed his outlook as outmoded and unrealistic in an age of deep political polarization.
And after running for the White House stressing the need to restore what he called “the soul of America,” he urged the country to come together.
“I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify,” Biden said at the outset of his speech, calling for togetherness.
Onlookers, some of whom had been waiting for hours to see him, sat on the rooftops of cars, waved red and blue glow sticks and leaned on their horns to demonstrate their support. And the audience, Biden said, included a number of Delaware dignitaries — and, ever the former senator himself, he greeted several of them by name.
After he concluded, Biden, Harris and their families remained onstage — and some of them danced — as an elaborate fireworks and drone light show unfolded. “Biden,” “President Elect,” “46” and “Harris” flashed across the Wilmington sky.
Biden had already appeared outside the Chase Center once this past week, in the early hours of Wednesday, when in brief remarks he said he was “on track to win this election.” In the days that followed, he limited himself to short and measured public statements as he and his team waited for news organizations to call the race and many of his supporters grew anxious.
Before he spoke, Biden addressed his campaign staff in a private video call, during which he thanked them for their efforts and insisted on the importance of engaging Americans who had supported Trump.
“I would urge you to reach out, you know, that person who had that Trump sign in their lawn next door or down the street,” he told his team. “Reach out to them. Tell them: ‘This isn’t personal. This is about getting together and restoring the basic values we’ve had for generations and generations here in America.’”
Biden also acknowledged the vast challenges confronting the nation and the huge responsibilities facing his team.
“The rest of the country is looking to us, the rest of the world is looking to us,” he said. “So we’re going to make sure that both the country is moving toward being united and the world that’s in disarray, the message is: America’s back.”
On Saturday, Biden spoke with former President Barack Obama, who congratulated him, as well as with the top Democrats in Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. At one point, Schumer held up his phone so Biden could hear people cheering for him in Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, Biden’s advisers and allies were giving serious thought to the transition period, for which they have been planning for months.
Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a national co-chair of Biden’s campaign and a possible future member of Biden’s administration, made clear that combating the virus would be a top priority of the president-elect’s in the coming days.
“He has a chance to take a breath, but I’m not sure that he will, because I know he’s so concerned about COVID,” Richmond said. “He’ll be up in the morning working on America’s COVID response.”
The New York Times News Service