Where Have You Gone Joe Biden? Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

by Michael C. Dorf

To preserve what's left of my sanity, I have been heeding the advice of mental health experts and trying to limit my consumption of news to reading the latest updates (mostly NY Times, WaPo, and the New Yorker) a couple of times per day. In normal times, I'm a bit of a news junkie, so this regimen has been difficult to follow, but there's no doubt that I read less and listen (via NPR) much less these days than in the time that I believe we will all eventually come to regard as "before." I occasionally watch NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and make it a point never to watch President Trump's daily COVID-19-related media shows.

Even so, I find myself flooded with coverage of Trump's boasts, misstatements, and head-spinning messaging changes. Meanwhile, following months of wall-to-wall presidential campaign coverage during the "before" time, I scarcely ever hear or see the words "Joe Biden"--not even yesterday, when one of the day's lead stories was how Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature, on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and at the US Supreme Court thought it a fine idea to require citizens of the Badger state to risk their own and others' lives to vote during the pandemic.  I believe that Biden's low visibility is a potential problem for the presumptive Democratic nominee's prospects for the presidency. Here I'll take a stab at explaining the bind in which Biden finds himself and propose a course of action.

I want to begin by giving credit where credit is due. Biden's messaging on the Coronavirus threat has been excellent and has struck the right notes. He's critical of the Trump response but mostly leaving the critique to allied supporters. His own ads rightly project calm, resilience, hope, and sacrifice. Here's an example:

(If you can't view embedded video, click here to watch on YouTube.) 

So what's the problem? The short of it is that very few people are watching. I only came across that ad by accident and then I had a hard time finding it again when I looked for it. Maybe the Biden campaign is targeting this and other ads via social media and otherwise in a way that does reach the right people. I certainly hope so. But even if so, Biden and his campaign are getting nothing like the free airtime that Trump is getting simply in virtue of being President during a crisis.

True, Trump's unique mixture of narcissism, stupidity, ignorance, arrogance, inhumanity, ego, and insecurity turned what would have been an extremely challenging disaster for the best President into a catastrophe, so one would think that the free air time would not work to his political benefit. And maybe that will be true as the rally-'round-the-President effect fades and the dying and mass unemployment sink in, but for now Trump seems to be proof of the adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Assuming that Biden can get the public to pay attention to him, his substantive proposals for addressing the coronavirus crisis are entirely sensible. Had he--or Barack Obama or, for that matter, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, or even Herman Cain--been President when the outbreak occurred, I believe the US response would have been substantially better and faster, which is not at all to say perfect. The chief substantive problem for Biden is that he is not now President, nor will he be, if at all, until January 20, 2021. Proposals that are sensible today might make much less sense in nine days, much less nine months--by which time the crisis could be worse, over, or very different. Accordingly, one must regard much of Biden's coronavirus platform not so much as a campaign promise but as a contrast. See how much better things would be if I were President, he seems to be saying.

He's right, of course, but how Biden's message will play as we near the election--which will happen, if at all, in ways that are themselves very challenging--remains to be seen.

2008 provides an instructive contrast. As the financial crisis struck, Obama took the lead in offering proposals, working with the Bush administration, and generally appearing much more ready to provide responsible leadership than McCain did. But Obama had a key advantage then that Biden lacks now. Obama was not running against an incumbent. He could cooperate with the outgoing Bush administration--which, to its credit, mostly worked on the problem rather than the politics--in a way that Biden cannot now cooperate with the Trump administration.

Biden thus finds himself in a bind. On one hand, if he sharply criticizes the Trump administration's response, he will come across as "politicizing" the crisis. That won't be fair; there's plenty to criticize, simply as a matter of science and policy; but that is the almost-certain effect; and even if it weren't, the punditocracy (including but not limited to the Fox-o-verse) would portray Biden as politicizing the crisis.

On the other hand, if Biden appears to be working too closely with or in support of the administration's efforts, he severely blunts his case against Trump. In a less severe crisis, that might not be too costly politically. Biden could then say something like we must all come together now to address this problem, and I want to support the administration's efforts, even as I continue to disagree with its handling of X, Y, and Z. The difficulty now is that no one is focused on X, Y, or Z. It's all COVID-19 and related economic fallout, all the time.

What to do? Although 2008 is, as I said above, an imperfect analogy, I think it provides some lessons. Biden needs to do as much as possible to fight the outbreak now. That's the right thing to do and it's also good politics. There's a "take action" tab on the Biden campaign website. It's all about actions supporters can take to help get Biden elected. It should be supplemented with a very prominent list of ways that supporters of Biden--which at this point should mean every Democrat, including those of us who strongly favored other primary candidates, as well as Independents and never-Trump Republicans--can take action to fight the Coronavirus and mitigate the economic fallout in their communities.

In a display of unity, Biden's erstwhile (and not-quite-yet-erstwhile) political rivals--I'm looking at you Bernie Sanders!--would join with Biden in turning out their networks of political volunteers to volunteer in providing other services in their states and communities, consistent, of course, with public health restrictions. In short, Biden could do well politically by doing good.