Joe Biden knows he’s not the story right now, and he doesn’t think he needs to be. So when the former vice-president told Lester Holt at a NBC town hall on Monday night in Miami that “this is a national emergency, so the president should take responsibility,” it was about as spicy as he would get.
With the entire political world zoomed in on Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalization on Friday and his public antics in the days since, the Democratic presidential nominee was content to hang back, letting the president’s chaos again dominate the news. Only now, four days after Trump’s public diagnosis, is Biden starting to again ramp up his critiques. Even as they’ve held their fire, his camp thinks doing so fits neatly into its broader strategy of appealing to a national yearning for decency, but also peace and quiet.
“One of Biden’s greatest strengths as a person, and as a future president, is his empathy,” said one senior party strategist working on big-money efforts to oust Trump. “And I think that’s on full display” with this strategy to cut back his negative ads and messaging over the weekend, instead just wishing the president well, he said. “The election was always going to be a referendum on Donald Trump, and since March it was always going to be on Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. That doesn’t mean that Biden shouldn’t give people a reason to vote for him and not just against Trump — he is, absolutely, doing that. But a lot of this is [proving] he’s the steady, responsible alternative to the chaos in the White House and the irresponsibility of Donald Trump,” the strategist continued.
And if there was ever any fear in Biden’s orbit this weekend that he was ceding a clear opportunity to attack Trump even while he recovered at Walter Reed, it was wiped out when Trump tweeted on Monday, that Americans shouldn’t “be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” insisting that he felt “better than I did 20 years ago!”
Closing out a long day of campaigning in Florida on Monday, Biden responded, “There’s a lot to be concerned about — 210,000 people have died … I hope no one walks away with the message that it’s not a problem. It’s a serious problem.”
To people close to Biden — and to many other Democrats supporting him — the Democratic nominee is on safe ground by simply modeling adult behavior these days, before he goes on the attack again later this week. “Doing things responsibly is, itself, a message,” said the strategist. “Just wearing a mask. In the debate, being a normal person and looking calm in the face of whatever Trump was doing is providing a contrast on its own.” On Monday evening, Biden made clear that he had no intention of becoming part of the story of Trump’s illness itself, and that he had bigger concerns. When given the opportunity, he refused to criticize the president’s doctors.
The tack is working so far. Though there’s been little public polling of the entire country or battleground states since Trump was admitted to the hospital on Friday, the early results suggest a positive trend for Biden. And a CNN poll released on Monday revealed that nearly seven in ten Americans trust little of what the White House says with respect to Trump’s own illness, while two-thirds disapprove of his handling of the risk to people around him. And most important, with less than a month until Election Day and early voting well underway, the poll showed that 60 percent of the country disapproves of his handling of the pandemic.
Biden was careful not to criticize Trump directly over the weekend, wary of looking callous. His campaign pulled its negative TV spots, and instructed its aides and surrogates to tread carefully when talking about the hospitalized president. But Biden’s campaign kept up his travel schedule and that of top surrogates like Bernie Sanders, announcing that it would start revealing the results of each of Biden’s COVID-19 tests after his possible exposure on the debate stage in Cleveland. And as he continued appearing in public, he grew more intentional about modeling safe behavior: He replaced his usual cloth masks with surgical-style ones in public, and his distancing grew more pointed, too. As he spoke to reporters before flying to Florida on Monday, his wife Jill at one point pulled him back a few steps because he’d wandered too close to journalists.
Trump loyalists still accused him of attacking the president — pointing to a critique of the administration’s economic record in Michigan on Friday — and the president’s campaign refused to match Biden’s gesture and take down their own negative ads.
So over the course of Biden’s Monday in south Florida, he very slowly began returning to his more direct criticism of the president’s coronavirus record — a process that’s likely to take a few days before he returns to last week’s level of critique. “I’m reluctant to comment on the president’s health,” he told reporters before boarding his flight from Delaware.
At his first stop, in Little Haiti, he spoke of safeguarding Haitians’ Temporary Protected Status and his recovery work after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, but didn’t go after Trump. A few hours later, though, in Little Havana, he addressed members of the local Cuban-American, Venezuelan-American, and Colombian-American communities, and turned back to the president, urging him to reconsider a federal mask mandate and calling the administration’s rejection of a mandate proposal for mask use on public transportation last week “wrong, and not very rational.”
And he went further: “Since the president was in the hospital, since Friday, more than 100,000 more people have been diagnosed with COVID,” he said, pointing out that 5,000 more would likely die this week. “I hope the president’s recovery is swift and successful, but the nation’s COVID crisis is far, far from over,” later pointing out the “top 100 billionaires in America have done pretty well — just since the COVID crisis they have made an additional $300 billion.”
It was clear by the evening town hall, when he criticized the Trump administration for opting not to provide teachers and students with masks, that he was ready to go on the offensive again.
But it was also clear that he was in no huge hurry. With nearly 4 million Americans already having voted by Monday, time is running short for Trump to change a significant portion of the electorate’s view of him and his administration’s handling of the pandemic. The political onus at this point, after all, is on Trump. “The reality of this has hit home very, very hard,” said former Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle, whose state is currently in the grip of a devastating surge of cases. “I just think the message that Trump is trying to sell — that somehow this is all okay — I don’t think it is going over in Wisconsin other than with the 40 percent-ish who will be there no matter what Trump says.”
Still, while Biden mostly steered clear of broadsides against the administration’s COVID-19 mismanagement, not one of the Democrats with whom I spoke on Monday thought he should keep his negative ads off the air now that Trump was taking himself out of the hospital and, again, trying to downplay the virus’s severity.
“Frankly, with Trump discharging himself from the hospital and claiming to be totally fine, it should give Biden permission to return fully” to messaging highlighting the extent of the administration’s failures, said the senior strategist.
By nighttime on Monday, pro-Biden groups were leading the way: Priorities USA, the biggest Democratic super-PAC, on Monday released a new ad in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin highlighting Trump’s explicit downplaying of the virus while promoting Biden’s mask-wearing. Then, after Mike Pence’s spokeswoman mocked Kamala Harris’s debate-night precautions, Ron Klain, one of Biden’s top advisers for decades, tweeted, “The man whose job it literally is to ensure that plexiglass barriers are widely available in business and schools is against them,” referring to Pence, the head of the administration’s coronavirus task force. “You want to know why our COVID response is so awful?”
Just a few hours later, Trump returned to the White House. He immediately took off his mask.