Coronavirus is killing the Biden campaign — and making him look like a fool
After a shocking turnaround in his campaign — he was nearly left for dead after his crushing defeat in New Hampshire, only to become the presumptive nominee after Super Tuesday — Joe Biden was ready to pivot to a general election campaign against President Trump.
But then the coronavirus hit the United States, and the ex-veep’s campaign has struggled mightily to deal with the political fallout.
Trump has dominated the news cycles over the last three weeks, and his administration has been a whirling dervish of activity. He and his team offer daily reports about N95 masks secured, ventilators procured, production capacities increased, negotiations with Democrats in the Senate for an economic rescue package and more.
The public likes what it sees. A Gallup poll out this week showed that 60 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing handling the outbreak.
The crisis has improved his overall numbers, too, in keeping with a history of calamities boosting polling for commanders-in-chief. For the first time since the start of his administration, the RealClearPolitics average of Trump’s job disapproval is less than 50 percent. Meanwhile, his approval rating is at 47 percent, again close to an all-time high.
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, slow-walked the economic rescue discussions this week, making them seem petty and small-minded in comparison.
Trump, in other words, has utterly eclipsed his would-be rival. And when Biden has been heard from, he has looked frankly pathetic. After disappearing for more than a week after his primary victories in Missouri, Michigan and Washington, Biden emerged this week for a series of speeches and interviews from his Wilmington, Del., home.
The purpose was obvious — his campaign desperately needs to muscle its way back into the news cycle. But that turned out to be easier said than done.
It is hard for anybody to compete with the president of the United States — regardless of what party he or she is in. That’s why the responses to the State of the Union addresses usually fall flat. So Biden and his campaign were admittedly fighting an uphill battle going up against Trump. Compounding this challenge is the need for sensitivity — it is important for Biden to criticize the president, but he can’t seem petty, small or overly political in a moment when the people crave real leadership.
This would be a major challenge for a Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt. For Biden, it turned out to be impossible. His public statements this week have been unfocused, error-ridden, full of awkward gaffes. They ran directly contrary to the message that his campaign is trying to convey: that he is battle-tested and ready to handle any crisis. Unsurprisingly, the Biden campaign canceled a major address.
Biden is clearly not working for the Biden campaign.
So what is his team going to do? Probably very little for now. The news is all coronavirus, all the time. If Biden doesn’t have anything productive to add to that conversation, he isn’t going to be involved in it.
And worse for Biden, the virus has forced multiple states to delay their primaries. This, in turn, keeps him from delivering the knockout punch to Bernie Sanders, who no doubt is eyeing Biden’s inapt performances and thinking that they might give him a way back into the race.
All of this works to Trump’s advantage. Whether it will be a short-term gain or actually help him win re-election is far too soon to say. The political implications of the coronavirus, just like the spread of the disease itself, are fluid and fast-moving. What has helped Trump and hurt Biden this week could very easily boomerang in the next.
And the pressure to get the response right is entirely on Trump. He has to successfully negotiate the transition of the economy from shutdown to rebooting, deal with the recurring unemployment spike, then perhaps the re-emergence of the virus later in the year.
Biden doesn’t have to do any of these things. He merely has to play the role of critic-in-chief — nitpick Trump and claim that he could have done things better.
But what has to hearten Trump at this point is that the Biden campaign is managing to screw up this most basic task. Trump didn’t make Biden look like a fool this week. Biden did that to himself, all by himself.
Jay Cost is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Grove City College.
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