WILMINGTON, Delaware—The gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on the Democratic ticket hoping to beat President Donald Trump, even if the cheers were muted through masks outside.
On a historic day, which ordinarily would have been a major campaign commemoration filled with a supportive crowd, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden welcomed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate into the pandemic era with stinging criticism of the Republican president’s tenure and a promise to restore economic and societal stability.
“This election isn't just about defeating Donald Trump or Mike Pence,” Harris said. “It's about building this country back better. And that's exactly what Joe and I will do.”
While others followed science during the pandemic, Harris said, Trump embraced “miracle cures he saw on Fox News.”
"This virus has impacted almost every country,” Harris said. “But there's a reason it has hit America worse than any other advanced nation. It's because of Trump's failure to take it seriously from the start.”
And amid his own barbs sent at the president for the mismanagement that Democrats say has defined Trump’s tenure, Biden made clear that Harris was exactly the person he wanted by his side as vice president.
“Her story is America's story, different from mine in many particulars, but also not so different in the essentials,” Biden said. “She's worked hard. She's never backed down from a challenge and she has earned each and every of the accolades and achievements that she has gained, many of them often in the face of obstacles that others put in her way, but never quit.”
Wearing a navy blue suit and white shirt coordinated with Biden’s own, Harris smiled, very slightly, when the former vice president said he made the right running mate choice. When Biden referenced the importance of having a “fair shot” at success in America, the senator nodded in unison. When he quoted Trump contending that she was, in his words, “mean,” Harris remained still, keeping her attention focused exclusively on the presumptive Democratic nominee.
“It's no surprise, because whining is what Donald Trump does best, better than any president in American history,” Biden said. “Is anyone surprised Donald Trump has a problem with a strong woman, or strong women, across the board?”
And on a day where Biden and Harris presented themselves in a united front as the Democratic standard bearers, Biden’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, wasn’t far from either leaders’ minds.
It was Beau who both leaders honored Wednesday as the presumptive nominee declared his running mate’s family “all honorary Bidens,” pointing to Harris as someone who’s had that status “for quite some time.”
Biden got to know Harris through Beau, he said, because of the two being friends when they served as attorney generals in their respective states and “took on the same big fights together.”
“I know how much Beau respected Kamala and her work," Biden said. “And that mattered a lot to me, to be honest with you, as I made this decision.”
Harris too reflected on her friendship with Beau, who she recalled speaking to on the phone "practically every day," during the Great Recession, calling the younger Biden "the best of us."
Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate means the California senator will be both the country’s first Black woman and first Asian-American vice presidential nominee, a remarkably historic feat in a year where vocal unrest and anger over racial inequity have played out alongside the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am incredibly honored by this responsibility and I am ready to get to work,” Harris said after Biden spent more than 15 minutes introducing his running mate.
Harris spoke about her own background and the historic symbolism of her new role, keeping in mind “all the heroic and ambitious women before me whose sacrifice, determination and resilience makes my presence here today even possible.”
Her parents "came from opposite sides of the world," to the United States, Harris said, with one coming from India and the other moving from Jamaica. They were united by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she said, as they both called for justice. Harris reminisced about having a role from a young age, including being taken to protests in a stroller.
“[M]y mother, Shyamala, raised my sister Maya and me to believe that it was up to us—and every generation of Americans—to keep on marching,” she said. “ She’d tell us, ‘Don’t just sit around and complain about things. Do something.’ So, I did something.”
After detailing her career as a prosecutor, California attorney general, and now, junior senator, she launched into a cutting examination of the Trump administration’s handling of coronavirus at a time when the country is seeing “a moral reckoning with racism and systemic injustice.”
“The case against Donald Trump and Mike Pence is open and shut, just look where they've gotten us,” she said. “More than 16 million out of work, millions of kids who cannot go back to school, a crisis of poverty, of homelessness afflicting Black, brown, and indigenous people the most. A crisis of hunger afflicting one in five mothers who have children that are hungry. And tragically, more than 165,000 lives that have been cut short, many with loved ones who never got the chance to say good-bye.”
“It didn't have to be this way,” she said, noting that only two people in the U.S. died during an Ebola outbreak six years ago during the Obama-Biden administration.
“That is what's called leadership,” she said.
Wednesday’s event was the formal culmination of what was at times a complex relationship between the two Democratic leaders during the 2020 cycle.
Over a year ago, Harris bristled at questions when the idea of sharing the ticket with Biden was occasionally mentioned as a possibility.
“If people want to speculate about running mates, I encourage that,” Harris said in May 2019, according to The Associated Press. “Because I think that Joe Biden would be a great running mate. As vice president, he’s proven that he knows how to do the job.”
At the following month’s primary kickoff debate in Miami, Harris highlighted Biden’s past approach on busing and his friendliness towards a pair of segregationist senators in a moment that left the former vice president reeling.
But by the fall, the Harris campaign had lost much of its momentum and eventually folded in December. After Biden won clear victories on Super Tuesday, she endorsed him less than a week later.
Harris has already faced attacks from Republicans immediately following Biden’s announcement launching a series of scattershot and, at times, sexist accusations that Harris was “phony” and “power hungry.” But Trump himself seemed reluctant to gin up base enthusiasm with his own attacks during a Tuesday afternoon press briefing at the White House.
"I thought she was the meanest, the most horrible, most disrespectful of anybody in the U.S. Senate," Trump said, pointing to the senator's challenging of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation process.
While Biden’s selection of Harris, 55, was seen, in the later parts of the vice presidential search process, as a likely choice among a dynamic field of possible female contenders, the selection is also expected to give the campaign an uplift as Trump continues to struggle in his handling of the coronavirus.
The pandemic has continued to change the landscape of the campaign process, as traditional in person events have largely been abandoned. The joint appearance here was no exception.
Press were temperature-checked and asked a series COVID-19-related questions about symptoms and contact. A bigger selection of media members, including reporters and production teams, gathered, socially distanced, in the school’s gymnasium, separated by white circles drawn on the floor as markings. By the podium, where a person whipped down ahead of the speech, two basketball hoops were folded upwards, as not to distract from the non-recreational purpose of the event.
Outside, police vans, one with flashing head and roof lights, served as a barricade from a medium-sized crowd of people casually dressed with masks gathered to catch a bit of the excitement from afar.