Joseph R. Biden on Thursday formally accepted the Democrats’ presidential nomination, vowing to take the country in a different direction from what he has described as a scorched-earth approach from President Trump and securing the party’s nod more than three decades after his first bid for the White House.
Mr. Biden has been running on a theme to restore the “soul” of America, frequently invoking the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia — and Mr. Trump’s response — as a tipping point that helped persuade him to take the plunge again.
He is now confronted with uniting a Democratic Party in which the energy is dominated by a harsher, take-no-prisoners approach championed by people such as far-left freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York rather than the back-slapping, deal-making bipartisan philosophy he has waxed on about on the campaign trail.
For now, antipathy toward Mr. Trump is holding the Democratic coalition together.
“I know Joe Biden, and we all know Joe Biden. We know what he stands for, and I’m eminently satisfied,” said Jim Zogby, a Democratic National Committee member who supported democratic socialist Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont in the primary contest.
“I am just looking forward to campaigning over the next 75 days and winning the White House and winning it very big so that there’s no question left for Mr. Trump to charge fraud and incite people to violence,” he said.
Mr. Biden is running on arguably the most liberal platform since Franklin D. Roosevelt, vowing far-reaching action on climate change, guns and taxing the wealthy — partly because of the prodding and advocacy from more liberal rivals such as Mr. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Still, Mr. Biden is in some ways an anachronism in the bare-knuckle, zero-sum political atmosphere that has swept through Washington in recent years.
He got into hot water during the presidential primary campaign for invoking the late Sens. James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, avowed segregationists, as he tried to make a point about working with people you might disagree with.
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, a former 2020 presidential rival who sang Mr. Biden’s praises Thursday night, had criticized him intensely for the remarks.
Mr. Booker, who is Black, also took exception with Mr. Biden’s use of the word “boy” in recounting a past conversation.
At the time, a stubborn Mr. Biden appeared flummoxed at what he did wrong.
“Cory should apologize. He knows better,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Booker, before ultimately apologizing for the remarks.
Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University, said Mr. Biden is caught in a “rhetorical zero-sum game.”
“The extent to which he reassures his liberal-centrist constituency, the more he threatens his progressive-radical constituency,” Mr. Vatz said. “If he cannot thread this needle, he risks losing the intensity he needs to ensure sufficient numbers vote for him to defeat President Trump.”
Mr. Biden, who would be 78 years old at his inauguration, has fended off persistent questions about his age and mental acuity, both direct attacks from Mr. Trump’s team and more subtle jabs from his fellow Democrats.
At a June 2019 debate, Rep. Eric Swalwell said he was but 6 years old when Mr. Biden quoted John F. Kennedy at a 1987 party convention and talked about passing a “torch” to a new generation of Americans.
“Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago. He is still right today,” the California Democrat said.
“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Mr. Biden replied.
This week’s convention has featured flowery testimonials about Mr. Biden as a family man who is quick to offer a word of encouragement or condolence, even to distant acquaintances.
Mr. Biden lost his first wife and young daughter to a car crash shortly after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate as a 29-year-old in 1972. He also lost his eldest son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015.
“When my husband unexpectedly passed away at the age of 52, it was Joe Biden who found me in a hospital and called to let me know that things were going to be OK and that I, too, could serve someday,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware. “He does everything that he does with a singular, unrelenting passion — to make the lives of those around him better.”
But Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said the forthcoming bar-room brawl between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump could turn more on a question of leadership.
“Biden is the candidate of making us better, but that’s not what this election is about,” he said. “This will be a dirty, tough fight between two extremes, and the argument needs to be leadership — not how kind I am. … This is not about how much we love each other. This is about who’s going to lead us.”
Mr. Biden’s first presidential run in 1988 flamed out amid allegations that he plagiarized a speech from a British politician.
He ran again in 2008, a campaign that was dominated by the budding rivalry between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who were both U.S. senators at the time.
Mr. Obama ultimately tapped Mr. Biden to be his vice president.
Mr. Biden weighed mounting a presidential campaign in 2016 but took a pass after Beau died.
“I regret it every day,” Mr. Biden said later, even as he said it was ultimately the right call for himself and for his family.
Mr. Zogby, who had been trying to draft Mr. Biden into the 2016 race, said he spoke with the former vice president the day he dropped out.
“It was not a decision that he took lightly, and I still wish that he had run,” he said. “The whole time, I thought, this is the guy who can do it. But Hillary Clinton cleared the field, and there was real pressure for people to stay out.”
After Mr. Sanders grabbed the early momentum in the 2020 primary with wins in New Hampshire and Nevada, Mr. Biden — propelled by Black voters — roared back with a dominating win in the South Carolina primary.
He followed it up with a solid performance on Super Tuesday in early March after Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, exited the race and swiftly endorsed him. Ms. Warren ended her campaign a few days later.
With the COVID-19 pandemic escalating, Mr. Sanders opted against drawing things out, as he did in 2016 against Mrs. Clinton, and dropped out in April.
If Mr. Biden had a picture in his head of what finally accepting his party’s presidential nomination would look like, it has been ripped to shreds with the proceedings this year.
He accepted the nomination in front of a mostly empty auditorium in Wilmington, Delaware, and has largely eschewed in-person retail politicking because of the public health crisis.
Democrats are trying to make the best of it.
“This convention, which started kind of feeling like a public access cable show from the 1980s, suddenly has become must-watch TV,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “From the calamari to the characters … this is the best convention I’ve ever seen, and it’s time to get it done.”
Rather than a standard roll-call vote to nominate Mr. Biden on Tuesday, representatives from the 57 U.S. states and territories announced their votes remotely — including Rhode Island State Rep. Joseph McNamara, who touted his state’s calamari industry.
As for Mr. Biden, Mr. Vatz said at some point he will likely have to get a little deeper than being the anti-Trump.
“Biden could borrow former President Nixon’s line, ‘It’s time to lower our voices,’ ” he said. “But at some point, policy differences must be addressed for electoral support and requisite governing practices.”
Liberal activists are already ramping up talk of holding Mr. Biden’s feet to the fire the day after the election to try to usher in an expansive agenda should Democrats win control of the Senate and retain control of the House as well.
In a major shift for the tradition-minded Mr. Biden, he has said on the campaign trail recently that he would be open to abolishing the legislative filibuster in the Senate depending on how resistant Republicans are.
“Does he have the courage to do the things that would change the tax code, provide some more opportunity for people and move the country forward if he had Democrat control again? The answer is yes,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.
But he said that might be putting the cart before the horse.
“The problem is not what he will do when he’s there. The problem is getting there and understanding who he’s facing,” he said.