In Two Speeches, Trump and Biden Offer Starkly Different Views of the Country

On Tuesday night, a triumphant Donald J. Trump looked out on an adoring crowd at his seaside mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., evoked the halcyon days of his presidency when, in his telling, there were no wars, the nation was universally admired and united in egalitarian prosperity — and then declared, “Our country is dying.”

Two days later, President Biden looked out on a sharply divided audience and conjured the mirror image: a country that is now “literally the envy of the world,” and a recent past as “one of the toughest periods in the nation’s history,” when crime was soaring, a deadly virus raged and the nation’s chief executive had “failed the most basic presidential duty” — “the duty to care.”

With the presidential election now fully engaged, two speeches two days apart laid out the choice that voters face, with visions of past, present and future that are diametrically opposed. But both men seemed to share the political goal of rallying their own base voters rather than the more traditional task of pivoting to the center to appeal to fence-sitters and foes.

The State of the Union address on Thursday and Mr. Trump’s victory speech after his near-sweep of Super Tuesday were in different settings and under different circumstances. The former president’s was a political rally at his perpetual political perch of Mar-a-Lago. Mr. Biden’s was supposed to be a Constitutionally mandated update on the condition of the nation, delivered to the elected branch of government, members of the Supreme Court and military leadership, with all the trappings and pageantry of state.

But in this tale of two speeches, both were strikingly partisan, delivered by a pair of elderly politicians beginning their general-election rematch with nods to their ages, hyperbolic warnings about this moment in history, prescriptions for the future — Mr. Trump’s vague, Mr. Biden’s specific down to a potato chip portion — and visions for the nation as different as they could possibly be.

“I see a future for all Americans,” Mr. Biden’s speech concluded. “I see a country for all Americans. And I will always be a president for all Americans because I believe in America.”

Mr. Trump’s finale struck a different tone.

“We’re going to have to deport a lot of people, a lot of bad people,” he said in concluding his 20-minute address, “because our countries can’t live like this, our cities are choking to death, our states are dying and frankly our country is dying, and we’re going to make America great again.”

There were nonetheless remarkable parallels. Neither man reached out to the other side or to a middle immiserated by the choices they face in the coming presidential election. Each addressed the liability of his age.

Mr. Biden spoke of his 81 years of age as an accumulation of wisdom and experience: “When you get to my age, certain things become clearer than ever before,” he said. “I know the American story. Again and again, I’ve seen the contest between competing forces in the battle for the soul of our nation.”

Mr. Trump was more oblique but wistful in recognizing he no longer was a young man, when he acknowledged youthful people in his audience: “I’d love to be your age,” he told them. “I’d pay a lot of money to be your age.”

Both referred directly to each other in the most negative possible terms.

Without uttering the name Trump, Mr. Biden referred to “my predecessor” 13 times, lashing him for his “outrageous” suggestion that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “do whatever the hell you want” with NATO allies in arrears on military spending, for burying “the truth” about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, for orchestrating the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and most starkly for Mr. Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, in which Mr. Biden said his predecessor had “failed the most basic presidential duty that he owes to American people: the duty to care.”

Mr. Trump was less specific, even more hyperbolic and did use his opponent’s name, in his signature tone of emphasis, as he clipped through his pronunciation of “Joe,” then expanded the vowels in “Biden.”

He went after his opponent’s age in visceral terms, evoking “Joe Biden” on the beach, where White House advisers might think he looks good in a bathing suit, but “he can’t get his feet out of the sand, or lift the chair which weighs about nine ounces.”

Then Mr. Trump added of his rival, “He’s the worst president in the history of our country. There’s never been anything like what’s happening to our country.”

That assessment of American history left out some universally recognized bad presidents who led the country to the Civil War, when a nation divided by slavery ripped itself apart through secession and as many as 750,000 American soldiers slaughtered each other in fratricidal combat.

Mr. Biden, for his part, did acknowledge that ugliest of historical chapters in attempting to put the coming campaign into the most dire of contexts: “Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault at home as they are today,” he warned. “What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas at the very same time.”

Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden was specific in his promises for a new four-year term, from the grand — a 25 percent minimum tax on billionaires — to the granular, a temporary tax credit of $400 a month to offset new mortgages.

But it was another aspect of American history that differentiated one man’s politics from the other’s: the fact that the United States is a nation of immigrants. The question of whether it will continue to be one could define much of the coming campaign.

Mr. Trump had a few other policy prescriptions — he said that in a second term, he would “drill, baby, drill” for oil and gas and would pursue “the second phase of our tax cuts,” an economic policy that Mr. Biden warned would be coming but that congressional Republicans in the audience denied was in the works.

But Mr. Trump made clear the centerpiece of his campaign would be border control and immigration, speaking floridly of an invasion of criminals and thugs that he said must be reversed through stringent border closures and mass deportations.

If that is what voters want, their choice will be clear, because while Mr. Biden ad-libbed the Republican term “illegal” to refer to an undocumented immigrant accused of murder, and while he embraced the tougher border-security measures reached in the Senate only to be torpedoed at Mr. Trump’s behest, he spoke of immigrants themselves in the soaring terms of presidents and poets past.

“I will not demonize immigrants saying they are ‘poison in the blood of our country.’ I will not separate families. I will not ban people because of their faith,” Mr. Biden promised. “Unlike my predecessor, I know who we are as Americans. We are the only nation in the world with a heart and soul that draws from old and new.”

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