Joe Biden faces a challenge unique to any previous presidential nominee: How to break through a politically-suffocating pandemic from his basement.
Not easy. COVID-19 is 9/11 transported to March 2020—but worse. At present this rolling national disaster obscures all political activity save by the president, governors, and congressional leaders.
Marginalization is Biden’s temporal lot. The suspension of primaries prevented him from crushing Bernie Sanders’ zombie candidacy, or stoking speculation about which woman will become his running mate. Nor can he seem eager to exploit the tragedy of COVID-19.
As panicky Democrats decry Biden’s effacement, Trump’s approval ratings rise. For now, a swath of Americans want to believe that the perpetually self-laudatory president can surmount a crisis which, for weeks, he carelessly dismissed.
Noxious Sanders supporters are assiduously stoking intra-party angst. Hence their Twitter hashtag #whereisJoe, and their ridicule of his initial efforts at home broadcasting. “Just ask yourself,” sniped Krystal Ball, “is that the man you want leading this crisis right now?”
Tacitly, these diehards harbor the ghoulish hope that COVID-19 will somehow reverse Biden’s drubbing of Sanders’ electorally-enfeebled “political revolution”—even as Trump’s irresponsible handling of this deadly pandemic makes Democratic unity ever more urgent. Though Sanders is a civil campaigner, there seems to be something about his candidacy which turns purists into political sociopaths.
Wisely, Biden is reacting with the tact and professionalism of a prohibitive frontrunner: politely waving off another debate while seeking common ground with progressive groups who supported Sanders. Since the suspension of the primaries, Biden has racked up endorsements from four influential unions, and his campaign is working to maintain their lead in future contests. On June 2—the date for a cluster of postponed primaries—Biden will have finished Sanders off.
As for Trump, Democratic consultant Bob Shrum told me, Biden’s campaign is using the tools currently at hand—including a powerful ad flaying Trump’s handling of COVID-19.
In this queasy interregnum, nervous Democrats should remember Biden’s strengths.
By mid-March, primary voters across the party had turned to him as their best hope. One reason was aversion to Trump. Another is that they like Biden—and could imagine him as president. His job now is to preserve that feeling until, as it must, the race ripens again.
After a halting start, Biden has smartly attacked Trump’s disregard for scientific advice, and his misbegotten plan to prematurely abandon social distancing. He hosted virtual events addressing the pandemic’s impact on young people and front-line workers. At his televised town hall, Biden offered two immediate measures to help struggling Americans: a three-month freeze on rent payments and, critically, government coverage of individual healthcare expenses due to COVID-19.
Further, he did what Trump cannot—display empathy: “I’ve lost a couple of children, I’ve lost a wife and it is incredibly difficult . . . to go through when you haven’t had an opportunity to be with the person while they’re dying.” Urging such people to “seek help afterwards”, he told them to contact his campaign so that he could speak with them personally.
Inviting Americans to imagine him as president, Biden has assembled a network of policy experts who can model what his crisis response would look like, while serving as surrogates in the public health debate. Now he has resumed working multiple media platforms to present the tempered leadership Trump lacks. “We should be telling the American people the truth,” he said on Meet the Press. “They’re strong. They’ll get through it.”
There is much that Biden can address. His call for government coverage of the cost of this pandemic prefigures a burgeoning crisis. Insurance premiums will rise. Laid-off workers will lose health insurance. Many won’t be able to afford the short-term fix of COBRA. Some will avoid treatment altogether. Our class system for healthcare may become unsustainable.
Biden’s proposal for short-term rental relief foreshadows a wider need: suspending foreclosures, evictions, and bankruptcies while pressuring credit card companies to stop accruing interest. A call for further federal action should include more aid to embattled states and cities facing financial catastrophe. Here Trump’s threat to governors—”It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well, also”—has drawn a blunt yet presidential rebuke from Biden: “This is not personal. It has nothing to do with you, Donald Trump. . . . Do your job, stop personalizing everything.”
That goes to something deeper than specific policies—an aura of leadership which reassures and inspires. Senator Sherrod Brown is both a highly successful practicing politician and a student of history. One model that Biden could consider, Brown told me, is FDR: His first campaign for president depended less on particulars than the persistent embodiment of humanity and resolve. This spirit plays to Biden’s strengths.
Brown suggests that Biden’s policy statements should be short, crisp, and specific—therefore, memorable. He can also highlight governors from both parties, such as Andrew Cuomo and Mike DeWine, for their effective implementation of public health measures which pose implicit contrasts with Trump’s erratic posturing. And he should praise and support the efforts of the private organizations and individuals who exemplify our resilience in the face of crisis.
As for the polls, Brown advises Democrats to maintain perspective. During the Iran hostage crisis of 1980, Americans rallied around Jimmy Carter; in November, Ronald Reagan trounced him. In 1991, George H.W. Bush’s popularity soared with the Iraq war; months later, he was trailing Bill Clinton. Already, polling shows that Americans feel disquiet about Trump’s delay in coping with the pandemic. And even now, Shrum points out, Biden is still winning head-to-head matchups. As COVID-19 envelops us, so may questions about Trump’s leadership.
True, Trump could get lucky yet again. But this crisis is all-consuming and cannot be blustered away.
As weeks pass, and Trump fails to banish reality, Biden can reemerge as the president Americans hope for.