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Biden Then And Now: A Look Back At His 2016 Convention Speech

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Joe Biden's speech tonight to the Democratic convention will not be his first. He's done several, most recently four years ago. That 2016 speech has stayed with me because of what he said and how. It says something about Biden then and now. Our colleague Scott Detrow was in the room in 2016 and is with us now. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's hear the start of that speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Kind of an unfamiliar noise behind him there, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I love you.

(CHEERING)

DETROW: That would be a large crowd cheering. I know it's hard to remember. I mean, the convention floor was so packed that night. And it couldn't be any further from the settings where Biden delivers speeches now. He often has to present this energy like he's speaking to a big room, but he's really just speaking to a dozen or so reporters. It's a very different setting.

INSKEEP: So he had the energy in 2016, but this stayed with me. He's got the crowd, but he keeps holding up his hands and saying wait a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Just listen to me a second without booing or cheering.

INSKEEP: He repeatedly quiets them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Let me talk about something that I am deadly serious about.

DETROW: And that's because he wanted the crowd to pay close attention to his critique of then-candidate Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We cannot elect a man who belittles our closest allies while embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin. No, I mean it.

INSKEEP: That's 2016, Scott. The critique hasn't changed much over the years.

DETROW: It hasn't. But Democrats think that the audience might be much more receptive now. Then it was all hypothetical. Now voters have had 3 1/2 years of President Trump in the White House, the last few months of which a deadly pandemic has raged across the country.

INSKEEP: There's another point in that 2016 speech where Biden refers to one of his signature lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I know I'm called middle-class Joe. In Washington, that's not meant as a compliment. It means you're not sophisticated. But I know why we're strong.

INSKEEP: Kind of a passing resentment that this very longtime Washington figure has never felt completely welcome.

DETROW: It's certainly true that even though he was a beloved Democrat, for years he was never taken seriously as a man who could win the White House, looking at previous presidential runs and even for long chunks of the presidential primary this year.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hear another part of that 2016 speech where he talked about suffering.

DETROW: His son Beau had recently died. This was a time of deep pain for Joe Biden and his family. But he made the point that he's not unique in that sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We think about the countless thousands of other people who suffered so much more than we have with so much less support, so much less reason to go on. But they get up every morning, every day. They put one foot in front of the other. They keep going.

(APPLAUSE)

DETROW: And this theme of connecting, of empathy and understanding suffering has long been a part of Biden's identity. But his campaign thinks that this year, amid a pandemic and everything else, it could be a very powerful argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We are America, second to none. And we own the finish line. Don't forget it.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Some of Joe Biden's convention speech from 2016 - now, one thing the vice president did not do then was paint a detailed vision of the future.

DETROW: That's right. His job that night was to sell Hillary Clinton as the nominee. It will be part of Biden's job tonight, though, when he gives another convention speech and accepts his party's nomination for president.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Detrow is in Delaware. Scott, thanks.

DETROW: Sure thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINGVALL TRIO'S "CIRKLAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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