Joe Biden found his footing — then coronavirus changed everything

Evan Halper, Janet Hook
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders greet each other before their March 15 Democratic presidential primary debate in Washington.  (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

It was another tough break for Joe Biden in his struggle for relevance while the nation wrestles with the pandemic: The former vice president was poised to appear before the vast audience of ABC’s “The View,” but before his interview started earlier this week, the show vanished from TV screens as network affiliates cut away to cover New York’s governor and Washington’s mayor addressing the coronavirus threat.

That encapsulated the brutal challenge Biden’s presidential campaign faces as he tries to connect with voters preoccupied with more pressing matters than politics.

Even as President Trump fumbles his way through the outbreak, there are risks for Biden if he remains in the background of this ever-changing public crisis. Fresh polling this week shows a diminished lead for Democrats in November, and Trump’s approval rating mostly stable despite heavy criticism of his early efforts to downplay the significance of the pandemic.

That leaves Biden in uncharted territory, a candidate awkwardly adjusting to the new reality of virtual campaigning and struggling to find a message that gets him back on voters’ radar.

He is making a concerted effort this week to raise his public profile, holding daily media events from a television studio newly installed in his home in Wilmington, Del., where he is housebound because of the pandemic. After days of being all but invisible, he gave interviews to "The View," CNN and MSNBC, and Wednesday he held his first news conference via Zoom. Also on Wednesday, Biden launched a campaign newsletter and in its first edition announced he would soon start producing a podcast.

Despite the media blitz, Biden is feeling the limits of his impact because, unlike New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is now a media star, Biden has no real governing power.

"I'm champing at the bit,” Biden said in his news conference. “I wish I were still in the Senate, and able to impact some of these things. But I am where I am."

His supporters are also groping for a new strategy.

“Everybody is navigating a new world,” said Steve Schale, an advisor to Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting Biden that just launched a fresh ad attacking Trump’s response to COVID-19. "There is no easy answer to this. There is nothing normal about this moment. Yet the political calendar doesn’t take a break.”

Another multimillion-dollar political committee supporting Biden, Priorities USA, recently launched its own new $6-million ad campaign aimed at helping Biden elbow his way back into public debate about COVID-19, including one spot that contrasts the chaos of Trump’s actions with clips of a resolute and confident Biden vowing to “lead with science.”

The marketing blitz, though, is undermined by a Biden campaign that still seems unprepared for this moment. The jury-rigged television studio in the rec room of Biden’s house projects more like a home-movie production than a high-tech presidential campaign.

He gave his first speech — about COVID-19, of course — on Monday, amid confusion about when the remarks would start. Biden got out of sync with the teleprompter and lost his place. He called the governor of Massachusetts “Charlie Parker” (his last name is Baker).

That was the bad news. The good news was that viewership was limited. None of the major television stations carried it live. It both relieved and frustrated many backers of the former vice president. The operational glitches of the campaign right now make them cringe.

Still, Biden supporters believe that the public health emergency wracking the nation cries out for a serious, experienced, stable leader — the qualities that Biden has been selling himself on since the day he launched his campaign.

“His experience and persona are made for this moment. People watch him and hear him and think, ‘It would be nice if he was president,’” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who was deputy campaign manager to Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. “The downside is people are not paying attention."

Getting them to tune in requires the kind of agile media- and tech-savvy campaign infrastructure Biden is scrambling to build. Democrats are urging him to move fast.

“He is going to have to change quickly,” said Shomik Dutta, a veteran of Barack Obama’s two campaigns and partner at Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for progressive political technology. “Joe Biden now has to wheel 180 degrees and prosecute a very different campaign than the one he was running.”

The coronavirus crisis engulfed the campaign just as, over a breathtakingly short amount of time, Biden all but sewed up the Democratic nomination on a shoestring budget — besting rival Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday and beyond even in states where he had never campaigned, had no staff and was vastly outspent. Although Sanders remains in the race, Biden is so far ahead that he has already shifted to a general election posture.

But now, the candidate is no longer able to get cash by holding living room fundraisers, forcing him to rely far more heavily on online donors. The traditional central-command-focused campaign Biden has run, Dutta said, will have to give way to one that relies heavily on decentralized clusters of digital-savvy volunteers. Biden needs to find a way to virtually convey the town hall and rope-line empathy and compassion that is such a draw for voters.

“He has to find formats that let him showcase those strengths that are not straightforward,” Dutta said. “He can’t just yell in front of a fireplace for two hours the way Bernie can.” Dutta suggested the campaign might find online influencers who can draw out the qualities of Biden that attract voters.

“It would be an interesting place to start experimenting,” he said. “In times of fear, people go for a brand name and something they know. He has a unique strength here. He is known for being stable, known for being empathetic, known for being deeply competent at what he does. There is a hunger for that."

The former vice president’s supporters are conflicted on how much Americans need to see Joe Biden at this very moment, when voters are processing a shutdown economy, overwhelmed hospitals and sealed international borders. As donors and advisors implore Biden to get in front of more cameras and be a bigger presence, the risks of appearing opportunistic run high.

“The public probably for another few weeks is not going to be focusing on a presidential race,” said John Garamendi, a Democratic congressman from the San Joaquin Valley who has endorsed Biden. “The time will come when the campaign will resume.”

Biden was plainly juggling the pressure to call Trump out for false statements and his fear of being seen as too partisan in a national emergency in his appearance Tuesday on “The View.”

"I think there's truth to both sides. That's why, if you notice what I've been doing, I've not been criticizing the president, but I've been pointing out where there's disagreement as to how to proceed," Biden said. "The coronavirus is not his fault, but the lack of speed with which to respond to it — it has to move much faster ... as I pointed out, this is not about Democrat or Republican."

But in his CNN interview later in the day, Biden bluntly scolded Trump for talking about allowing businesses to reopen by Easter. "He says he's a wartime president," Biden said. "Well, God, act like one."

However he handles this awkward interregnum publicly, many Democrats are hoping that Biden uses this time well to ramp up his campaign operation so it will be ready when the battle resumes in full force.

“He has 12 people working on his digital platform,” said Michael Meehan, who also advised the Kerry campaign. “He needs 1,200.… It is hard to knock off an incumbent in times of trouble. You don’t win presidential campaigns in the spring, but you can lose them there if you don’t prepare right.”

On Tuesday morning, a new Monmouth University poll showed Biden’s lead over Trump in a fall matchup had shrunk to a scant 3 points, putting it inside the margin of error. While the poll showed Biden performing better in some crucial swing states, the news was unnerving to Democrats, yet not completely unexpected as voters put stock in the federal government to get the nation through this crisis.

“We all hope and pray this is a short-lived moment and society can get back to work,” Schale said. “Anybody who is a human wants this.”

A key challenge for Biden, he said, is getting voters to focus not just on the immediate crisis of a dire shortage of hospital beds and a plunging stock market, but also how to pick up the pieces when the acute emergency passes.

“There is still going to be a choice in seven months,” Schale said. “The vice president will do his best to define that choice. How are we going to get out of this? What will the world look like going forward?”