Six times during Sunday night’s Democratic primary debate, Joe Biden looked across the CDC-recommended six-foot distance between his lectern and Bernie Sanders’s and brought up the White House’s Situation Room. He’d been there before, he reminded Sanders, the CNN moderators, and the audience. And, he suggested, he’d know exactly what to do if he returned. “Right now,” he repeated 16 times, he’d be prepared to act — trying to underline the urgency of the coronavirus crisis and the need for immediate action. Then — in case his plan to have voters conceive of him as presidential and prepared, and focused on the brass tacks, hadn’t sunk in yet — he said it outright. He parried Sanders’s attempts to examine the ideological gulf between them by dismissing it as beside the point: “This is a national crisis; I don’t want to get this into a back-and-forth in terms of our politics, here.” And in his closing remarks, he invoked competent Oval Office management once more, referring to “crises we had when we were in the White House.”
It wasn’t particularly subtle, but the former vice-president’s team didn’t think it had to be. As the country’s focus narrowed to the pandemic, the debate and its repeated reminders of the Obama administration’s handling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak was the highest-profile manifestation yet of Biden’s plan to contrast himself with Donald Trump by projecting an image of steady, experienced control. It’s a message he began sending in the previous week in public appearances. He will continue to develop it in coming days, according to a handful of senior Democrats close to him and his campaign. In part, the new messaging strategy reflects the dramatically reshaped political landscape from even a week ago, with Biden apparently well on his way to the nomination but the country’s news dominated by the pandemic. It’s not quite the pivot to the general election his advisers expected, but the the SARS-CoV-2 crisis became an obvious opportunity to define stark contrasts between himself and Trump and to lean into his best natural political attributes.
As far back as November, in focus groups of Nevada and South Carolina voters looking for Biden alternatives, participants invariably still said they would want Biden to be the “commander-in-chief in a crisis” — and did so with no prompting from moderators, said Steve Schale, the longtime Biden adviser now running the Unite the Country super-PAC supporting him. “What is his strongest argument is also the argument that fits the moment best,” he said. (A national Quinnipiac poll this month indeed showed well over half of Americans preferred Biden to Trump when asked, “Who do you think would do a better job handling a crisis?,” and by a larger margin than Sanders led Trump. Tuesday exit polling also showed him far ahead of Sanders on this count in the states voting this week.) In practice, the shift to highlighting these characteristics has been a convenient fit with social-distancing measures for the candidate. While the virus has meant minimizing the kind of close-contact retail Biden loves, and cutting back on stump speeches, it has allowed a natural transition to focusing on graver, scripted addresses and minimizing town hall events, which he now has to handle from afar, either online or over the phone. As such, for “everybody around him, this was pretty much the instinct,” one congressman close to Biden’s team told me. “It’s not necessarily a campaign tactic as much as how you proceed in a time like this,” explained a top campaign adviser. “It is a time where candidates have to recalibrate. And of course for Joe Biden, he was vice-president for eight years, and he knows how to be president, and he knows what a president needs to do in times like this. It is only natural that he would go into that mode right now.”
Without a reliable sense of what campaigning will look like in the coming months, Biden’s brain trust has been discussing different formats for remote town hall events but also talking over ways to get him in the TV news cycle more — “especially at a time when so many people are going to be home and are going to be watching television for news, clearly that is something that any campaign would think about,” said the adviser. And the plan is still a work in progress: Biden didn’t weigh in on the specific economic proposals to offer relief to Americans as the debate raged in Washington early this week, chipping in only a vague tweet calling for a “decisive economic response” by the time polls closed on Tuesday.
Still, painting a distinct contrast with Trump’s scattered response, which — they are quick to note — has not just been inconsistent but also interspersed with ranting about Hillary Clinton’s emails and floating a pardon for Michael Flynn, can only work to Biden’s benefit, they believe. And a sense of steady leadership is also important internally for a campaign that has undergone its own turmoil in recent months, as it flailed through Iowa and New Hampshire, nearly ran out of money before South Carolina, and installed a new campaign manager in the last week amid an attempt to staff up rapidly. Behind the scenes at their headquarters across from Philadelphia’s city hall, the team is also quietly trying to figure out how to replace the in-person fundraisers they’d expected to help fund the campaign and to fix the technical difficulties that rendered his first virtual town hall a bit of a mess, complete with distorted sound and the candidate ultimately holding a cell phone up so the audience could hear him.
So far, the effort has been built around a few high-profile moments, beginning last Tuesday, when Biden at the last minute replaced what was expected to be a raucous, celebratory rally in Cleveland with a somber speech about the challenge ahead at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The next day, he named a “public health advisory committee,” including prominent figures like Zeke Emanuel, former Obama Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco, and former surgeon general Vivek Murthy. (Murthy has since joined him for his remote town halls; Biden is also being advised by Ron Klain, a potential future senior White House official, who led the Obama administration’s Ebola response.) Then, last Thursday, after White House aides had to correct Trump’s Wednesday evening Oval Office address on multiple counts, Biden delivered a Wilmington speech specifically written to contrast with Trump. “Public fears are being compounded by pervasive lack of trust in this president, fueled by the adversarial relationship with the truth that he continues to have,” he said, sharing his own response plan.
But the centerpiece of the initial plan was the debate. Onstage, he set out to accomplish three things as part of the larger strategy, according to those close to him. First, he announced that he would tap a woman to be his running mate, encouraging voters to think about him as the nominee, and president. Second, he went out of his way to scrap with Sanders on a handful of topics, like immigration and gun control, hoping to allay fears about his abilities on a one-on-one debate stage. And as part of his attempt to convince viewers he’d be ready to handle this crisis by reminding them he’d been in the White House before with mentions of the Situation Room and the Obama administration, he also repeatedly brought up the Ebola crisis (he did this enough that Sanders, at one point, flashed irritation, insisting the circumstances were different).
After the debate, Biden’s campaign sent surrogates a talking-points email encouraging them to amplify the message: “At a time when the country is looking for leadership, wanting stability, and craving trusted experience, Americans saw that tonight in Vice President Joe Biden,” it read, according to a copy obtained by New York. “If you took one thing away from tonight’s debate, it was that Joe Biden is clear-eyed, prepared, and ready for what’s next: uniting the Democratic party, beating Donald Trump, and guiding this country in a very serious time of uncertainty.”
Of course, Biden first has to finish the job of winding down his race against Sanders, whose path to the nomination appears to be all but sealed off — especially after Tuesday’s results — but who remains in the race. The puzzle for his advisers now is determining the degree to which the party will unify out of necessity in this time of crisis, and how much work Biden will have to do — beyond his weekend moves to embrace Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan and to call for free public college for those whose families make $125,000 or less — in making policy concessions to Sanders.
But as voters wrap their heads around the severity of the moment, those around the former vice-president are eager to move on to the main event. “The reality is setting in that we’re not going to have a Democratic discussion at this point. If it were neck-and-neck, that would be one thing,” said Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who briefly ran for president himself in 2019 before backing the former VP. “But Biden is pulling away, and having a clear contrast with the president is really important.”
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