Days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then-Senator Joe Biden had been advised that he should make an address to a frightened nation before the National Press Club. Instead, he phoned Oprah.
Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, decided that The Oprah Winfrey Show, the highest-rated daytime television show in the country at the time, was the best way for his message to reach the biggest audience of frightened Americans.
“They do not have the capacity to take this nation down,” Biden told the studio audience six days after the attacks, reassuring Americans that President Geore W. Bush “has his eye on the ball” and had built a coalition of global partners to keep the nation safe. Biden’s address to the nation on Oprah was seen as a major moment for the future vice president: a call for calm during a time of national crisis, with an audience numbering in the tens of millions, many of them stuck in their homes.
Nearly two decades later, as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on America’s economy, government and collective sanity, Biden has been slow to establish a similar platform at another time of national crisis. Sequestered in his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden has lost the national spotlight just as the Democratic primary appeared to be drawing to a close—and just as President Donald Trump has, through no genius of his own, been able to frame himself as the chief architect of the government’s response to the pandemic.
Although the general election will likely turn more on Trump’s handling—or mishandling—of the coronavirus crisis than on the former vice president’s ability to get airtime, some longtime Biden backers are worried that he has ceded too much territory to the president at a time when his humanity-driven brand of politics could be at its most effective.
“The vice president has disappeared” from cable news coverage in the first days of the crisis, one bundler told The Daily Beast. “People I’m talking to are wondering why’s he not out there, every day, calming the nation, especially at a time like this? Why is he letting Trump run the show?”
Biden has, in fact, done numerous television appearances in recent days. In broadcasts beamed in from the rec room of his home this week, the former vice president has outlined his plan to combat the pandemic, appeared on The View to decry Trump’s apparent proposal to “re-open” the nation’s businesses despite the risk to public health, and did two cable news hits on Tuesday afternoon emphasizing the importance of national unity in combating the novel coronavirus.
Biden, like much of America, has been in social isolation to ensure that he won’t get sick, and basements in Wilmington aren’t easily convertible to high-definition television studios, which was abundantly clear the night of Biden’s address after sweeping the Arizona, Illinois, and Florida primaries—the low audio and visual quality of the address made it look as if Biden had won the trio of primaries in 1988 rather than 2020.
The Trump campaign exploited the technical lag, tweeting that Biden was “in hiding” and “doesn’t have the capacity to stand in front of a camera and answer questions for an hour every day like President Trump!”
Trump’s poll numbers, meanwhile, have surged nationally in recent weeks, as daily press briefings on the public health emergency have given him a platform to alternately calm and frighten the nation: the most recent Gallup national poll shows his approval ratings rising five points, to a record 49 percent.
That the rise in approval, similarly enjoyed by other national leaders around the world during the pandemic, has come despite a stock market freefall and an unprecedented disruption in American daily life adds credence to the concern by some Biden backers that the battle for airtime—though cheap in a time of national emergency—isn’t one to ignore.
“I do think it does provide him a great opportunity to fill the void, to step up and be the very strong alternative to Donald Trump,” said Lis Smith, who served as Pete Buttigieg’s communications director but is currently unaffiliated with any campaign. “Joe Biden is a very empathetic person, Donald Trump isn’t, and I think people are looking for some humanity and some empathy at this moment.”
Part of the problem may lie in the fact that the “stars” of the pandemic, to use Trump’s terminology, are those in charge of the direct response: governors, senators and senior public health officials. As a former senator and vice president who has functionally, though not formally, attained the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden is not in a position to call any shots.
“He doesn’t have that sort of natural perch,” Smith said. “These are really trying times and you know it doesn’t make sense to go out there with some sort of half-baked idea or half-baked strategy… Andrew Cuomo doesn’t have that luxury.”
That lack of an official platform might not be a bad thing, however.
“What he should not be doing is what McCain did in the fall of ’08 and try to kind of overstate his ability to have influence in this,” said Tim Miller, a Republican communications advisor who ran Jeb Bush’s comms operation in 2016, referring to the decision by Sen. John McCain, then the Republican nominee for president, to suspend his campaign to head to the nation’s capital to focus on addressing the financial crisis.
That spur-of-the-moment decision largely backfired on the Arizona senator—McCain was not a leading figure in addressing the nation’s economic collapse, and he still lost the White House.
Instead of trying to out-commander-in-chief the president, Miller suggested, Biden should take a page from his own post-9/11 book and focus on the human aspect of the ongoing crisis.
“Have conversations with people who are struggling from this, provide moral and emotional support—that something that Biden is great at doing, and something that the president is utterly incapable of doing,” Miller said. “It’s an important contrast for him.”
In one of his increasingly common appearances on Tuesday, Biden appeared to be doing just that.
“Ordinary people doing extraordinary things for their community,” Biden told MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace on Tuesday. “The American people have been through some really tough times, they have never ever, ever, ever failed their country.”