WASHINGTON — Many Americans want to forget about former President Donald Trump, but President Joe Biden won’t let them.
In nearly every sentiment of the new president’s first prime-time address to the nation Thursday night, an unsentimental Trump loomed in the background.
Biden cast the fight against coronavirus as one in which America will emerge from the darkness into the light under his leadership. That is rooted in the same theme Biden used to offer himself as an antidote to Trump when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president last summer.
Trump “has cloaked America in darkness for much too long,” Biden said then. “I will be an ally of the lightness, not the dark.”
In echoing his August speech Thursday night, Biden twined his political fortunes with those of a nation that anticipates brighter days ahead. That’s a smart bet on the sun rising after a dark night of disease and despondency. But Biden couldn’t draw as powerful a contrast for his narrative — he couldn’t cast himself as such a clear protagonist — without a villain.
It was an impressive feat for Trump to be so present without his name ever passing Biden’s lips.
“We were hit with a virus that was met with silence and spread unchecked, denials for days, weeks, then months,” Biden said at one point. “A mask … divides us,” he said moments later, alluding to Trump’s hesitance to promote face-coverings.
By implication, Biden charged Trump with deceit and dereliction.
“We know what we need to do to beat this virus: Tell the truth,” Biden said. “Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people.”
It’s not hard to imagine Trump watching Biden Thursday night and muttering to himself part of the climactic testimony Jack Nicholson delivered as Col. Nathan Jessup in the film “A Few Good Men”: “You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”
Biden’s point is that America suffered for having Trump on the wall, entrusted with the nation’s security. But deep down in places Biden doesn’t want to talk about while Americans can’t go to parties, he can’t quit Trump.
He needs the antagonist both to build himself up as the hero of the coronavirus tale and as a target to lay blame, both deserved and undeserved, for any frustrations Americans have with the efficiency of vaccine distribution and the ongoing economic pain.
But there are topics on which Biden seeks to make Trump invisible.
For all the victories of a vaccination effort that has now spanned two presidencies, Biden is, like any politician, trying to take as much credit as he can get away with. At times, that requires erasing Trump from the story.
“We’ve been working with vaccine manufacturers — Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson — to manufacture and purchase hundreds of millions of doses of these three safe, effective vaccines,” Biden said Thursday night.
Trump started that effort more than a year ago. He invited executives of all three companies, and several others, to the White House to press them to develop vaccines at record speed and promised to clear regulatory underbrush to help them deliver.
For that part, Biden’s not interested in what came before him.
“Now because of all the work we’ve done, we’ll have enough vaccine supply for all adults in America by the end of May,” Biden said of his own administration.
When it comes to the reopening of schools, Biden vowed to ensure that more than half of students between kindergarten and eighth grade will soon be back in class. It was an easy promise to make. Only a quarter of students from K through 12th grade are currently attending virtual-only schools, according to Burbio’s tracker, and the Biden administration counts a single day a week in school as constituting in-person attendance. It would be an incredible backslide if more than half of students were only going to school virtually several weeks from now.
Self-congratulation and blame-casting are two of the most shopworn tools in politics, and Biden deployed them Thursday night with the expertise of half a century in the business. But that artistry was, in and of itself, a crucial contrast with Trump.
Biden didn’t say he’d already conquered the disease, predict that it would vanish on its own, or trash the opposing party. As Biden likes to say, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”
And that’s what he did Thursday night.
Jonathan Allen is a senior political analyst for NBC News, based in Washington.