This is a moment that challenges more than his limited stylistic range. The obstacles for the former vice president are more daunting than the logistics of being housebound in a pandemic. The crisis calls into question the earnest, cheerful, incremental brand of progressivism that animated Biden’s career for a half-century…

Biden was 25 years old for most of 1968, working as a clerk at a Delaware law firm. Forty years would pass, all but four of them in the U.S. Senate, until Biden was tapped as running mate by Barack Obama on his way to becoming the nation’s first African-American president. There was an event that affirmed the essence of Biden’s steady, temperate liberalism—striking evidence that the system is on the level, that history moves toward light, that people of good will can overcome America’s original sin of racism.

Could Biden, or even Obama, possibly have imagined 12 years ago how perishable those gains would seem today? How profoundly many African-Americans, and others, believe many institutions are simply not on the level and are not getting gradually better? And how, in such a climate, the voice of a divisive but omnipresent performer like Trump could make Biden seem almost inaudible in the storm?