Democrats Are Getting What They Bargained for Out of Joe Biden

Which is maybe just enough to get by.

An empty lectern decorated with a Biden logo against the backdrop of supporters at a rally.
A Biden event in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 29. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s first major event since his March 15 debate with Bernie Sanders is set for Monday at 11:30 a.m. EDT, when he will discuss the coronavirus crisis from a studio that’s been set up in his Delaware home. [Update, March 23, 2020, at 11:45 a.m.: Biden went on a bit earlier than expected and spoke for about 15 minutes.] His reclusiveness in recent days has become news in itself: His only real or virtual public appearances last week, during the most alarming series of events to transpire in America for at least 19 years, were a five-minute speech about Tuesday’s primary elections and a Friday conference call with reporters. At the end of that call, he apologetically said his campaign was just on the verge of getting digital streaming figured out. “They tell me there’s ways in which we can do teleconferencing via us all being in different locations,” he said in a way that did not quite convey steely confidence and managerial focus, adding: “We’ve hired a professional team to do that now. And if you excuse the expression, it’s a little above my pay grade how to do that.” (Bernie Sanders, despite being older than Biden and having a full-time job in the Senate, has already been holding regular events online.)

Biden’s absence has been noted by his critics in the left-liberalsphere, who are asking what exactly the point is of having a nominee whose main selling point is a steady, affable public persona if he’s not going to be appearing in public when stability and morale are running low. His disappearance, it’s said, has allowed Donald Trump to dominate the crisis narrative and somehow possibly to put himself in a position to win an election by belatedly semi-fixing a problem he created himself.

But Biden’s campaign has always been about the collective idea of Joe Biden rather than the day-to-day reality. His comeback to presumptive nominee status didn’t happen because he gave a series of stirring performances or because his ideas seized the public imagination but because of other people’s endorsements and strategic electoral skepticism about Sanders. His speeches and debate sound bites are about Barack Obama and Donald Trump more often than they are about himself, and his baffling non sequitur–to–appearance ratio is close to 1:1, which is probably why, even before the virus hit, he held relatively few campaign events and press conferences. Sure, it might be nice to have a nominee with the energy and mental focus to appear in public every day during the possible end of civilization, but the 2020 edition of Biden was never such a person, and you can’t disappear if you were never really there. Right now he is giving Democrats exactly what they voted for: a distant presence who will not be actively alienating and who is associated with enough good ideas and capable people that you could reasonably bet on him to be an improvement over the current disaster.

Consider that Biden does actually have a coronavirus plan, which is outlined on his website, and which covers all the points that any high-information consumer of COVID-19 news could ask for: immediate boosts to hospital capacity and medical supply chains; consolidation of national public information efforts; funding for universal testing, treatment, and sick leave; and multifaceted relief for suddenly un- and underemployed workers (and their employers). There’s discussion of preventing future pandemics via goals that range from the quotidian (staffing up at federal agencies) to the existential (mitigating climate change). And there are basic—but at this point welcome—statements of values like “put scientists and public health leaders front and center in communication with the American people” and “ensure that public health decisions are made by public health professionals and not politicians.” To the extent that it is possible to judge such things here in the eye of the storm, Biden’s coronavirus proposal is a good one.

Did Biden write this plan out by hand from his house in Delaware before the “internet guys” posted it on his site? I can’t say. But at the least it shows that he is smart enough to associate himself with the right coronavirus people, a point proved further when he said during his conference call that he’s been in touch with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who have been acclaimed for proactive and transparent handling of their local outbreaks. (Given Biden’s extreme affection for being a guy who Remembers That Whether We’re Republicans or Democrats, We’re All on Team USA, his failure to mention equally active Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is a galling oversight.) Last week, Biden’s campaign posted a well-produced video of his former chief of staff Ron Klain—who, as the Obama administration’s “Ebola czar,” took the novel approach of preventing tens of thousands of Americans from being infected by a deadly virus—using a whiteboard and a marker to break down Trump’s mishandling of the crisis and explain what needs to be done to make up for it. It was a great case for electing Joe Biden to let Ron Klain handle 100 percent of pandemic stuff.

And while many alarmed feelings were felt on the left half of the political spectrum when an ABC News/Ipsos poll released Friday found that 55 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, there are no other indicators of a groundswell of support for the president, whose approval rating is holding steady at a (not good) 43.5 percent. In fact, the only head-to-head general election poll conducted last week for which results are available was done by Emerson, which found Biden leading Trump by six points nationally—a net swing of 10 points in Biden’s favor since the last time the same pollster asked the question. Whatever Joe Biden is doing by not doing things, it seems to be working.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Monday’s episode of What Next.