When fourth-term senator Joe Biden built his Wilmington, Delaware, home in 1996, he had no plans to turn it into a backup office, let alone a presidential-campaign isolation bunker from which to plan a crisis presidency an order of magnitude more expansive than anything in the past half-century. Now, nearly every morning, Biden spins through an early Peloton ride in the upstairs weight room, dresses (formally, no sweatpants), drinks his breakfast shake, and sits at the phone in his study awaiting the latest updates on the world’s misery. Then, sometimes looking at the small lake abutting his backyard that bulges out from Little Mill Creek, the self-conscious man in the Democratic middle — mocked by the activist left throughout the primary campaign as hopelessly retrograde — considers the present calamity and plots a presidency that, by awful necessity, he believes must be more ambitious than FDR’s.
The former vice-president carried the Democratic primary by relying on perceptions that he was an older, whiter, less world-historical (and less inspiring) Barack Obama — a steady hand who seemed more electable against a monstrous president than any of his competitors did. The heart of his pitch, when he delivered it clearly, was status quo ante, back to normal, restore the soul of the nation. But in the space of just a few months, COVID-19 and the disastrous White House response appeared to have dramatically widened Biden’s pathway to the presidency, making the matter of moderation and electability seem, at least for the time being, almost moot. They also changed his perception of what the country would need from a president in January 2021 — after not just four years of Trump but almost a full year of death and suffering. The pandemic is breaking the country much more deeply than the Great Recession did, Biden believes, and will require a much bigger response. No miraculous rebound is coming in the next six months.
Biden will presumably spend that time developing a detailed map of what will be necessary come Inauguration Day. Long before the pandemic, he described a range of actions he’d take on day one, from rejoining the Paris climate agreement to signing executive orders on ethics, and he cited other matters, like passing the Equality Act for LGBTQ protections, as top priorities. Already his recovery ambitions have grown to include plans that would flex the muscles of big government harder than any program in recent history. To date, the federal government has spent more than $2 trillion on the coronavirus stimulus — nearly three times what it approved in 2009. Biden wants more spending. “A hell of a lot bigger,” he’s said, “whatever it takes.” He has argued that, even if you’re inclined to worry about the deficit, massive public investment is the only thing capable of growing the economy enough “so the deficit doesn’t eat you alive.” He has talked about funding immense green enterprises and larger backstop proposals from cities and states and sending more relief checks to families. He has urged immediate increases in virus and serology testing, proposing the implementation of a Pandemic Testing Board in the style of FDR’s War Production Board and has called for investments in an “Apollo-like moonshot” for a vaccine and treatment. And he floated both the creation of a 100,000-plus worker Public Health Jobs Corps and the doubling of the number of OSHA investigators to protect employees amid the pandemic. If he were president now, he said in March, he would demand paid emergency sick leave for anyone in need and mandate that no one would have to pay for coronavirus testing or treatment. As the crisis deepened, he said he would forgive federal student-loan debt — $10,000 per person, minimum — and add $200 a month to Social Security checks.
This is all only what he believes should be done now before he even ascends to the presidency; by then, he thinks, the country could be in a much darker hole than it is today, presumably requiring even more federal investment and intervention. David Kessler, who led the Food and Drug Administration under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and has been speaking with Biden regularly about the crisis, recently told me the former vice-president “understands that until we have a vaccine or a therapeutic entity that can be used as a preventative, the virus is still going to be with us and that we’re going to constantly be putting out mini-epidemics.” Biden, he said, “has a very considerable grasp of what a realistic future holds.” He paused. “It is not rose colored.”
And while 2009 shows that spending unprecedented amounts of money alone doesn’t necessarily make a presidency transformational, the pandemic and the economic collapse it has produced have expanded Biden’s sense of not just how much relief will be required but what will be possible to accomplish as part of that recovery. Presidential campaigns typically produce many more policy proposals than they ever expect they’ll have the political capital to execute — that’s why the more pressing question is often not what a candidate wishes but what he or she will prioritize in the window of opportunity that usually slams permanently shut in the first midterm elections. Trump accomplished one big-ticket priority: tax cuts. Obama managed two: the stimulus, with a filibusterproof 60-vote Senate majority, and, barely, Obama-care. While it’s impossible to tell where the country is headed, Biden’s camp is in the disorienting position of scaling up its laundry list of proposals to match the ambition, and the political appetite, he thinks the American people — desperate for relief — will have in January.
Biden’s long platform has grown in recent months as the crisis has deepened. In early May, for example, his campaign detailed a long list of reforms specifically aimed at helping black Americans, like expanding tax credits used by African-American small-business owners and establishing a $100 billion affordable-housing fund, noting that “the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 have shined a light on — and cruelly exacerbated — the disparities long faced by African-Americans.” And in the weeks before the lockdowns set in, Biden was closing out the Democratic primary in part by shifting left. He embraced Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy proposal, long a contentious subject between the two of them. And though he hasn’t signed up for Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All or free-college plans, he moved toward Sanders on some student-loan-debt and health-care-funding policies and arranged six working groups of advisers to both camps to tackle issues like immigration. Once he began talking about a coronavirus recovery, he also started signaling more immediate ambitions on climate, including in his multiple conversations with Washington governor Jay Inslee. “He’s totally understood the centrality of a clean-energy plan,” said Inslee.
Widely seen as a cautious, tradition-bound pol and intuitive centrist within the Democratic fold, Biden stopped his economic advisers in their tracks one morning in late April. On one end of the call, the economists discussed parallels between the landscape Biden might inherit in January and the devastated one of 2009. Eleven years ago, the newly elected vice-president oversaw the implementation of historic stimulus funding, and these days Biden is fond of bringing up his Great Recession–era work because of the similar effort required today and to remind voters of this experience. But now, he said into the phone, it was time they expanded their thinking. Sure, massive gobs of federal financial help have already been approved — unlike in 2008, he pointed out — but that still won’t be enough. Not while the magnitude of this crisis dwarfs the last one. His advisers agreed: If they were going to talk about lessons from history, their future calls might as well dive into the Great Depression and World War II.
“I think it’s probably the biggest challenge in modern history, quite frankly. I think it may not dwarf but eclipse what FDR faced,” Biden told CNN’s Chris Cuomo last month. “The blinders have been taken off because of this COVID crisis,” he said to a group of 68 donors who gathered on Zoom for a fundraiser a few weeks later. “I think people are realizing, ‘My Lord, look at what is possible,’ looking at the institutional changes we can make, without us becoming a ‘socialist country’ or any of that malarkey.”
Is this news to you? Or does the vice-president seem about as far from a transformational crusader of the left as could fit in today’s Democratic Party? Even during lockdown, Biden has been doing quite a lot of interviews and making a wide range of appearances from his basement studio — in many, signaling explicitly the new ambitions now demanded of an aspiring president. It’s just that with all eyes on Trump, and Biden struggling to seize attention even as he leads in national polls, nobody has really noticed. The candidate is not blessed with historic rhetorical skills — for decades, he’s been prone to gaffes and for months has been dogged by concerns spread by his opponents that he has slipped even further. The present crisis would seem to be an enormous opportunity for a politician (like his former boss) endowed with more expansive communication chops. Instead, Biden is bunkered down, campaigning relatively quietly, and now, suddenly, answering an accusation from his past.
The campaign trail locked down in March, sending Biden back to Wilmington. Late that month, his former Senate staffer Tara Reade came forward.
Reade had been one of a handful of women to accuse Biden of making them feel uncomfortable with unwanted touching before he launched his campaign; he promised to change his “expressions of affection, support, and comfort” at the time. But in late March, she told podcast host Katie Halper that Biden had digitally penetrated her against her will. Soon after, she filed a police report claiming a sexual assault had occurred in 1993. Biden’s campaign flatly denied Reade’s allegation in a statement from his deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, that pointed out his authorship of the Violence Against Women Act. “He firmly believes that women have a right to be heard — and heard respectfully,” she said. “Such claims should also be diligently reviewed by an independent press. What is clear about this claim: It is untrue. This absolutely did not happen.”
For a few weeks, Biden said nothing on the topic; no interviewer asked him about the accusation. News outlets investigating it found friends of Reade’s who recalled being told some details of the story in the 1990s, though no former Biden aides who recalled it. Some Democrats close to the Biden campaign grew frustrated that the former vice-president himself didn’t address the charge at first. Multiple operatives said it was clear to them that he would have to provide a more fulsome answer, especially given his history as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas hearings — when he declined to call witnesses supportive of Anita Hill’s testimony and stood by as his Republican colleagues attacked her. He expressed regret about his role in those hearings in 2019, including by phoning Hill herself, who said afterward she didn’t think he had really reckoned with what he’d done. And when, early in the primary, a group of women accused him of inappropriate contact — though not assault — he addressed their claims without an outright apology, instead promising to be more mindful but saying that “social norms are changing.” A few days later, he had to apologize for making a joke about having permission to hug an introducer for one of his speeches. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more,” he said then, insisting he never meant to disrespect anyone. “I’m not sorry for any of my intentions.” This time, many in the Democratic Party said, he would have to do better. “He doesn’t have the luxury of time,” said Jess McIntosh, a veteran party strategist and former Hillary Clinton campaign official. “He has got to acknowledge that his behavior has made women uncomfortable, he understands it, he understands that he was never supposed to behave that way — not that times have changed — and that he understands what women have gone through and that he will be a champion going forward.” In late April, Reade said she had filed an official Senate complaint that she said would prove she had approached senior Biden aides about his behavior.
Then, finally, Biden got the question in an interview with Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski. “It is not true. I’m saying unequivocally it never, never happened,” he said on May 1, calling on the secretary of the Senate to release the complaint Reade said she had filed (but which she also said wouldn’t explicitly mention sexual harassment or address the alleged assault). Those around Biden have been naturally cautious in discussing the accusation, but they appear sure their candidate is innocent and have aimed their response at transparency, particularly around the complaint Reade says she filed. The morning Biden spoke with Brzezinski, he wrote in a statement that “if there was ever any such complaint, the record will be” in the National Archives, within the records of the Office of Fair Employment Practices. But this got complicated quickly: The archives advised that it wouldn’t have it; then, after Biden asked the secretary of the Senate where it would be, that office replied that it could not legally release any such records. Could it even confirm the record’s existence, or could the complainant herself ask for its disclosure, a Biden counsel asked. The office replied, essentially, no. Reade responded nearly a week later, telling Megyn Kelly that she thought Biden shouldn’t be running a campaign based on character and that he should drop out. That day, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported on the existence of court documents from Reade’s 1996 divorce revealing that she had told her husband she had been sexually harassed while working for Biden. (The papers didn’t mention assault or accuse Biden.)
Until that point, beyond calling for the release of the Senate document — which Reade had suggested was actually an intake form rather than a detailed file — the campaign had trod relatively lightly. It let surrogates address the matter directly, many by pointing out Biden’s flat denial and his full vetting by Obama in 2008. “I’m not going to question her motive. I’m not going to get into that at all,” Biden told Brzezinski in their interview a week earlier. “I don’t know why she’s saying this. I don’t know why, after 27 years, all of a sudden this gets raised. I don’t understand it.”
Bedingfield released another statement. “An inescapable fact in the case of these false allegations is that more and more inconsistencies keep emerging,” she wrote. She pointed to comments Reade had made in an Associated Press interview last year (but that was just published) saying she was not scared of Biden or “that he was going to take me in a room or anything.” And she highlighted another new Vox report that the anonymous friend who now corroborates Reade’s story last year said Biden “never tried to kiss her directly. He never went for one of those touches.” “Women must receive the benefit of the doubt,” Bedingfield said. “They must be able to come forward and share their stories without fear of retribution or harm — and we all have a responsibility to ensure that. At the same time, we can never sacrifice the truth. And the truth is that these allegations are false and that the material that has been presented to back them up, under scrutiny, keeps proving their falsity.”
Privately, even some Democratic operatives and activists who are inclined to trust that denial have expressed frustration that the party finds itself in this position. As progressives marvel that Biden, the relative moderate, may be the one to oversee a massive expansion of government spending, those thinking of women’s issues and victims’ rights are worried about what it means that this is the candidate who’ll be toppling the frequently credibly accused president they see as the harasser-in-chief. A more deft communicator might have an easier time navigating this territory and earning the trust of voters on it. Biden seems inclined to stay relatively quiet. Still, he’s atop the ticket. “There is this idea that ‘Women are suddenly in this huge jam because Trump is awful, but now our guy is awful too,’ ” said McIntosh. “But this isn’t a Joe Biden problem. It’s a patriarchy problem. Women are always choosing between two men who have somehow disrespected women. This is not new.”
Because of the pandemic, none of Biden’s top advisers have seen him in person since mid-March, when a handful visited to prep for his final debate against Sanders. Nowadays, only two staffers — his traveling chief of staff and his wife’s chief of staff — ever occasionally drop by his house and only if they are properly masked and gloved. The same goes for his Secret Service detail. Biden hasn’t been tested for the virus, and he spends his time in isolation on a just about never-ending procession of phone calls charting this course forward. He rings both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to hear their updates on recovery legislation and to gently share his priorities when he finds it appropriate. He calls Democratic leaders in some of the hardest-hit spots, checking in with governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, California’s Gavin Newsom, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, and Washington’s Inslee, and mayors like Los Angeles’s Eric Garcetti. At times he talks policy with Warren.
And after a year of uncomfortable distance, Biden has been phoning Obama for guidance — on unifying Democrats, on choosing a running mate, and on campaigning and communicating amid the pandemic. The pair now speaks with such frequency that some people close to the former president are starting to get amused.
Still, the bulk of Biden’s phone time is spent with senior staffers and advisers, starting with two morning briefings — one on public health, one on the economy — coordinated by his former national-security adviser Jake Sullivan and his policy director, Stef Feldman.
In his economic briefings — which have featured former White House advisers like Jared Bernstein and Benjamin Harris as well as Heather Boushey of the liberal Washington Center for Equitable Growth — Biden has likened the necessity to spend massively and immediately, without the usual D.C. focus on deficits, to a wartime effort. Recently, on a private call with Colorado-based donors, a disenchanted Republican told Jill Biden, Joe’s wife and a prominent campaign presence, that he trusted her husband but feared he’d tacked too far left and wasn’t sufficiently concerned about “the pain” of the national deficit and debt. Jill, an English professor, replied, “I agree, there’s going to be so much pain that Joe has to address — it’s going to be the physical pain, the emotional pain, the social pain, the economic pain that this country is going to go through.” She ignored the part about the deficit.
From the outside, the expansive ambition seems an uncomfortable match for Biden, a constitutionally nostalgic dealmaker who places a premium on Washington comity. And the 77-year-old now previewing structural shifts in society is, after all, the same one who, at a closed-door, financier-hosted fundraiser at the Upper East Side Carlyle just 11 months ago, chased his call for remedying runaway income inequality by reassuring the room, “We can disagree in the margins, but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished — no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”
But Biden is also a lifelong Democrat who likes the view from the center of the party, enough to move rapidly to accommodate when it shifts, as it is doing now very quickly. He may look like a milquetoast moderate to the activist left and maybe even to you, but the party — and world — has changed so fast that even his primary platform puts him well to the left of Obama in 2008 and, in many ways, left of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Those close to him say he sees in the crisis an obvious window for action. “There is no denying that the challenges a President Biden would face in 2021 are different than anyone could have imagined six months ago given the economic and health consequences of the coronavirus,” Feldman, who has worked with Biden for nearly a decade, told me. “What I’ve heard the vice-president say over and over again is this crisis is shining a bright, bright light on so many systemic problems in our country, and so many inequities. It is exacerbating and shining a light on environmental-justice issues, racial inequalities, so many other problems.”
Publicly, Biden has made no secret of his displeasure with Trump’s handling of the disaster, from his personal conduct — Biden has said the delay in distributing relief checks in order to print Trump’s name on them “bothered me the most” — to the administration’s failure to ensure small businesses access to relief funds while state unemployment systems were overwhelmed. (Biden “was incredibly pissed off — furious” about it when his advisers described the problem to him, one told me.) On his calls, he has been most focused on fighting the disease and righting the economy. In his conversations with public-health experts like Kessler and former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, Biden usually hears up to half an hour of straight-ahead updates on disease projections, equipment distribution, and treatment research before he gets to his policy questions. In one of their talks, Kessler and Biden spent an hour on the phone discussing topics including “the intricacies of adenovirus vectors as vaccines, the detailed science. How do you make the virus? How’s it being tested, where it’s being tested,” Kessler said last month. “He wants me to engage in the scientific details because it helps him — he can take what we’re saying, and it helps him formulate a policy.” In another recent call, Biden’s briefers ran through the virus’s “R value” in each state and effective contact-tracing procedures.
His campaign has enlisted a large group of experts to talk through research and solutions with him. The roster has included Columbia’s Irwin Redlener, the University of Pennsylvania’s Zeke Emanuel and Nicole Lurie, Georgetown’s Rebecca Katz, and longtime associates like former Obama homeland-security adviser Lisa Monaco and former Obama “Ebola czar” Ron Klain. He also checks in with his son-in-law, Howard Krein, a Philadelphia head-and-neck cancer surgeon, about frontline conditions.
Two months in, Biden’s daily questions are often oriented around understanding the landscape he would face next year. “We don’t know how things are going to be in January 2021, but in all likelihood there is still going to be enormous suffering in this country,” said Sullivan, who speaks with Biden regularly. “A lot of people will be knocked down and will have a hard time getting back up.” When discussing his policy options with his advisers, Biden often mentions his experience with the Ebola and H1N1 outbreaks as well as his work overseeing the “cancer moonshot” in his final year as VP. But it’s the memory of 2009 that looms largest for him. “His receptivity to a lot of this stems from direct experience with the last recession,” said former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray, whom Biden has consulted about economic proposals. Cordray, a close ally of Warren’s, and others agreed that Biden’s particular fixation, after seeing that significantly more stimulus money is passed, has been to ensure that it is properly administered.
And he’s been bracing to face a stubborn Congress that may feel it has already done enough. Biden has long touted his ability to work with Republicans, frequently to the exasperation of younger Democrats who see the last decade-plus as a tale of nonstop GOP obstruction. He’s still talking with allies about how to win Republicans over on emergency economic and public-health legislation. “He does have to be closely attentive to: How can we put together a bipartisan coalition to work toward recovery?” said Delaware senator Chris Coons, a close Biden ally. But based on his experience in 2009, Coons said, “he is concerned about the willingness of Republicans to work in a bipartisan way to power the public out of this.”
Recently, friends have noticed that Biden is talking less about this and more about policies that Mitch McConnell’s Senate GOP would be unlikely to go for no matter what — like new environmental investments and oversight. The crisis, Biden believes, has expanded “the state of what is possible, now that the American people have seen both the role of government and the role of frontline workers,” said Sullivan. “He believes he has a more compelling case to make that this is the agenda that needs to get passed.”
Biden hasn’t suddenly abandoned his traditionalist view of the Senate’s role or the filibuster and doesn’t yet seem to have an obviously persuasive answer about how to pass legislation on the scale he believes is necessary given the effective veto power McConnell is likely to hold because of it. But while conventional wisdom holds that spectacular achievements require a politics of spectacle, a different dynamic may well apply in a crisis. In 2009, far more green investment was included in the stimulus than Republicans would have found acceptable in a stand-alone climate bill, and Democrats have managed to so significantly expand unemployment insurance that, in most states, many workers on unemployment are eligible to receive more money than they made when working — mostly because, in both cases, nobody was paying such close attention to details, focusing instead on the top-line spending numbers they hoped to deliver.
This isn’t the confrontational politics preferred by party activists, but it may not be as dead in the water as they assume, either. And when Biden has talked to senator friends recently, he has asked about the prospects of taking the chamber back. Sometimes he goes into detail: When he caught up with Alabama’s Doug Jones late on a Saturday night in mid-April, Biden asked for an update on the senator’s race, which everyone thinks will be extremely difficult to win, suggesting that he thinks Jones could plausibly hold his seat. If that happens, Democrats would be a safe bet to take the Senate. Still, they won’t get to 60 seats, which means anything close to a New Deal–size presidency would require some negotiation with (and concessions from) Republicans.
Since wrapping up the nomination, Biden’s signaling hasn’t been exclusively to his left. In April, Bloomberg News reported that he was relying in part on former Treasury official Larry Summers, who was widely criticized as too close to high finance and detrimental to climate action in the prior recovery. He has also spoken with the former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a reigning don of centrism. Outwardly, at least, Biden appears sensitive to the concerns of progressives. “He has said this is the second time in 12 years that the American taxpayers have bailed out American business,” Sullivan told me. The implication is that Biden has run out of patience. “That’s fine, we should do it and protect our economy — but he believes we have to ask our private sector to take on greater responsibility and accountability.”
Still, Sanders and Warren have both been proposing their own ambitious relief measures that could be read as attempts to push Biden further, and it’s not as if he’s embraced the kind of universal Medicare system that Sanders has long championed — and that the Vermonter’s supporters argue is rendered even more obviously necessary by this crisis. And just hours after Sanders exited the race last month, Biden was scheduled for a pair of fund-raisers. The first was a Q&A with Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator who became Obama’s secretary of Defense.
Biden has mused about creating a bipartisan Cabinet like Obama’s even as his proposed recovery agenda has grown more aggressive. Such comments have usually come in passing when he’s asked, rather than as an active suggestion, but chatter was still ignited among some senior Democrats close to his campaign in early April when they saw a column in the New York Times by Tom Friedman, whose writing Biden follows. Friedman proposed a “national unity cabinet” that would include the likes of Mitt Romney and the Walmart CEO alongside Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The idea was far-fetched, but Biden has talked openly, and seriously, about the notion of rolling out certain Cabinet picks before he is elected as a way of giving voters a sense of what to expect and to hit the ground running when he takes office. And he has already begun early-stage thoughts about not just top appointments but sub-Cabinet posts and the broader shape of his government.
“That’s not him measuring the drapes,” said Sullivan. “He’s been there before, and part of the reason that’s on his mind right now is he is highly attuned to the importance of speed, efficiency, effectiveness, ambition, execution. The premium on those things right out of the gate — both to deal with the immediate emergency but also to drive a legislative agenda — has gone way up as a result of this crisis.” Much of the sketching has involved Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime adviser and temporary successor in the Senate. Though Biden has yet to officially form a transition operation, he has talked about elevating a handful of White House offices to the Cabinet level, including the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and creating new posts focused on global-health security and climate change.
He has been tight lipped about who he might appoint to what, but he has considered options. “If the Lord Almighty said, ‘Joe, I tell you what: You have to decide in three hours what your Cabinet is or you’re going to be bounced out of the race,’ I could write down who could be in the Cabinet. There are at least two or three people qualified for every one of those positions,” he confided to donors on a mid-April Zoom call. Democrats close to Biden point to his current cast of advisers, often Sullivan and Klain, as potential appointments, and two of his campaign co-chairs, Garcetti and Louisiana representative Cedric Richmond, get mentioned too. So does former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, as do some former 2020 rivals — most frequently Amy Klobuchar, Warren, and Inslee. Biden has spoken of viewing himself as a “bridge” to a new generation of leaders, specifically mentioning Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Whitmer, and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu.
And he’s spent plenty of his time out of the spotlight weighing his vice-presidential options, conscious that he may effectively be picking his replacement and therefore sending an important signal about his wishes for Democrats’ future. His list of top contenders has long been thought to include Harris, Klobuchar, Whitmer, and Warren, as well as Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. As the lockdown has dragged on, Biden has insisted his pick be ideologically “simpatico” (once thought to be a point against Warren, though less so amid this crisis), and he has hardened his belief that she must be prepared to take over from their first day in office. That point — which Obama has echoed in their conversations — is read by some in Biden’s circles as a potential knock against Abrams, who has never held statewide elected office, and some members of Congress who’ve been floated.
One reason Biden’s running-mate choice will be so closely watched is the excruciating likelihood that she will be asked to answer for Reade’s allegation — and respond to the broader feminist criticism of Biden — over the course of the general election against the often credibly accused Trump, accepting what Rebecca Traister of this magazine has called a “poisoned chalice.” “One of our worst national pastimes is making women answer for the men who have behaved badly, and we’re going to go through it again,” said McIntosh.
Most of Biden’s shortlist has already been asked and has stood by him. Democrats have mostly followed the lead of his unequivocal denial. But a broader conversation still looms, in part because Trump’s defenders are desperate to cut down on Biden’s huge lead among women voters — a national Monmouth poll in early May showed him leading Trump by 20 points among women, even as nearly nine in ten Americans expressed familiarity with Reade’s accusation.
And while the official response has relied on transparency around the Senate complaint, the campaign has effectively drawn at least one line in the sand: The same day Biden first addressed the allegation, the Times’ editorial board called for the Democratic National Committee to assemble “an unbiased, apolitical panel” to dive into old Senate papers Biden had donated to the University of Delaware (an archive primarily composed of old speech drafts and communications his staff had selected for commemoration but that could theoretically include internal memos, though not personnel files) in search of any mentions of Reade. This isn’t the kind of archive politicians ever expect to be opened while they’re in or seeking office; the last thing they want is an unguided fishing expedition. Still, Biden himself rejected a search of the archive for Reade’s name when Brzezinski floated it; on ABC two days later, DNC chairman Tom Perez said, “This is like the Hillary emails because there was nothing there.” Biden’s campaign has already weathered one such scandal with Hunter Biden, Burisma, and Ukraine, and some loyalists believe this will pass too.
Most of those close to the campaign believe that to beat Trump Biden simply must keep going — as he did all primary long, even after the impeachment affair and after his own campaign faltered when the primaries began — with his party largely behind him. In the time since the accusation became widely known, Hillary Clinton endorsed Biden as part of a virtual “women’s town hall,” and Kirsten Gillibrand held a national call with the campaign’s “Women for Biden” group.
The lockdown hasn’t exactly been a reflective time for Biden. His days are dominated by his calls, which start mid-morning and can go until late into the night; Coons recalled to me how, on a recent Tuesday, the pair caught up at 10 p.m. for 45 minutes and Biden still had two more calls to make after they hung up. But the time off the trail has given him unexpected, and appreciated, time to catch his breath after a dramatic year. Usually he takes his calls in his study, but he’s been eager to get fresh air when the weather allows. Aides can sometimes tell he’s talking to them from his porch when they hear birds in the background. And when he’s off the phone, he has tried settling into a comforting pattern. He’s reading Irish poetry in free pockets and having dinner with Jill each night for the first time in at least a year. He’s keeping his German shepherds, Major and Champ, close too — they sometimes wander into the frame when he’s video-chatting with advisers. On occasion, his grandchildren who live in town visit, sticking to the backyard while “Pop” and “Nana” sit on the porch and lob them ice-cream bars, and he goes out of his way every day to sneak ice cream for himself, too, preferably chocolate chip.
And yet he’s grappling with the sudden disappearance of an environment in which he thrived. He occasionally sighs to friends about the lost ritual of campaigning: the hugs-on-the-rope-line retail politicking for which he’s best known and in which the most empathetic version of him is best understood as a human who has known great pain, a time when he can look voters in the eye and grieve with those wishing to share their burden with the man who lost his wife and 1-year-old daughter in a car crash at 29 and then his son to brain cancer in 2015. When he first went into lockdown, he asked aides to find ways to keep him interacting with the kinds of voters who’d show up to his events, so they set up a “virtual rope line” and — after he nearly gave out his cell number on CNN while discussing what it feels like to lose a loved one without being able to visit them — regular private conversations for him with everyday people affected by the virus, especially frontline workers and grieving family members. More than once since then, he has interrupted aides on calls when they’ve griped about the limitations of their confined environment, reminding them of medical workers’ stresses and dangers and of the Americans suddenly without a paycheck.
Biden had just named a new campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, when the staff was forced into lockdown, and he’d been focused on raising the money necessary to compete with Trump. This was desperately needed after the roller-coaster primary that saw Biden’s campaign outmaneuvered for months in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada before its South Carolina resurrection, but the endeavor slowed with the economy, and the last thing his campaign needed was a national conversation about his lackluster profile just as millions of voters — potential small-dollar contributors — settled in for a month or three in front of their TVs.
“I got a lot of people who are supporters getting very worried,” Biden vented on an invitation-only donor call hosted by Microsoft president Brad Smith in early April. “ ‘Where’s Joe? Where’s Joe? The president’s every day holding these long press conferences.’ For a while there, I kept getting calls — people saying, ‘Joe, the president’s numbers are going way up, and he’s every day on the news. What are you going to do about it?’ You can’t compete with the president. That’s the ultimate bully pulpit.” By then, he’d been spending hours a day in the basement cranking out TV interviews, livestreams, and podcasts.
In private, Biden insisted to even his most nervous friends that Trump may be enjoying his blockbuster ratings but that he was shooting himself in the foot. “Every day that Donald Trump goes on TV is a good day for Joe Biden. He believes it,” said Orlando attorney John Morgan, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser, after a catch-up with Biden around that time. Still, when Trump’s approval numbers deflated, then kept sinking, the relief was obvious. “If you notice,” Biden told the donors last month, “those numbers aren’t going up anymore. They’re going down. Because the things he’s saying are turning out not to be accurate, and people are getting very upset by it.”
As April wore on, it became fashionable among some members of Biden’s orbit to take their political optimism a step further. They may have no clear answer for how he’s supposed to campaign effectively from his basement through the fall, they admit, and they worry that the Obama political advisers David Axelrod and David Plouffe were right when they warned, in an early-May Times op-ed, that “he will have to up the tempo of his campaign.” But a president simply does not get reelected after hundreds of thousands of Americans die and tens of millions lose work on his watch, this cadre believes, even if his challenger has to spend the campaign season, in part, reckoning with an accusation like Reade’s.
“I don’t know what else people want,” a Democratic operative close to the Biden team said last month after a spurt of new public polls showed Biden leading Trump in a handful of swing states. A few days later, Trump grew so upset with his plunging ratings that he threatened to sue his campaign manager. In early May, O’Malley Dillon predicted to fellow Obamaworld alums that previously safe Republican states would be in play at this rate. “He’s well on his way to an electoral landslide,” the other operative told me.
“I hate to sound cocky,” he continued. But, he said, unless something dramatic changes, Biden “can stay in his basement.”
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Stacey Abrams has never held elected office. It has been updated to reflect that she’s never held statewide office.
*This article appears in the May 11, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!