Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines

Democrats are growing increasingly anxious that Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination The Memo: Job numbers boost Trump and challenge Biden Chris Wallace: Jobs numbers show 'the political resilience of Donald Trump' MORE is losing ground to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE as the nation deals with an unprecedented national crisis in the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus story has shoved the Democratic presidential primary race out of the headlines just as the former vice president was seeking to pivot to the general election. 

It has made it easier for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs order removing environmental reviews for major projects | New Trump air rule will limit future pollution regulations, critics say | DNC climate group calls for larger federal investment on climate than Biden plan Google: Chinese and Iranian hackers targeting Biden, Trump campaigns MORE (I-Vt.) to stay in the primary fight, as there is less pressure from the media and Democrats for him to get out with the focus on the pandemic. At the same time, it’s made it more difficult for Biden to get his message out.

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Energy and enthusiasm that was surging toward the Biden campaign on Super Tuesday has largely devolved into a national angst over a damaged economy and a swiftly rising number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

Democrats, already deeply worried about losing a second presidential election to Trump, have seen their fears grow higher. And some of them are pointing fingers at Biden and his campaign, who they say need to do a better job of getting Biden’s message out nationally.

“It's the perfect cocktail of shitstorm,” one Democratic strategist put it. “A pandemic no one expected, a horrible president at the helm, and a repeat of the 2016 primary with a candidate doing damage to his own party. No one wants to be the asshole that sounds the alarm, but it's pretty bad.”

The pandemic has put an even greater spotlight on Trump, who has become the central player in the daily briefings on his administration’s coronavirus response.

Trump’s actions, as always, have divided the public. He’s come under criticism in recent days for suggesting much of the country could reopen for business by Easter Sunday — April 12 — a time frame many public health experts say seems optimistic at best.

Yet polls have shown that a majority of the public approves of Trump’s management of the crisis so far, something the administration has pointed to.

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Biden, meanwhile, has not even been the most prominent Democrat on the crisis. That spotlight has gone to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is dealing with the epicenter of the U.S. crisis in his state.

It is only the end of March, with the general election still more than seven months away, and some Democrats say their party is falling victim once again to perpetual worrying.

“Democrats are constantly panicked and riddled with anxiety. I am not,” said Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo.

He noted that while Trump’s approval ratings are at their highest level in three years — a Gallup poll out this week showed that 49 percent approve of the job he’s doing as president while 45 percent disapprove — they still seem low for a president handling a national crisis.

At such times, Americans often rally around their leader.

“In a normal crisis Trump would be at 70-plus approval. The fact that Trump and his cronies are celebrating the numbers they have today don’t understand that the postmortem coronavirus stories will be hitting his campaign at the same time a well-rested and fully funded Vice President Biden is bringing it to him hard,” he said. “This is perfect for us.”  

Other Democrats are stressed that Biden is sidelined.

“In a normal campaign year and under normal circumstances, Joe Biden right now would be the spokesperson for the Democratic Party,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who worked on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden: Probably '10 to 15 percent' of Americans 'are just not very good people' Mattis's Trump broadside underscores military tensions Mark Cuban says he's decided not to run for president MORE's 2016 presidential campaign. “But this is no normal time, and the Democratic nomination process seems frozen in place."

“What complicates matters further is that the coronavirus pandemic has prevented traditional campaigning and taken up all of the oxygen in the media echo chamber,” Payne added.

Republicans have seized on the absence with frequent emails and comments asking, “Where’s Joe?” 

Biden this week sought to break through the noise, setting up a camera in his Wilmington, Del., basement and speaking directly to voters. He also made an appearance by livestream on “The View” and did interviews with CNN and MSNBC. 

On Thursday night, he appeared on ABC’s “Jimmy KimmelJames (Jimmy) Christian KimmelBiden to give virtual interview with Colbert on Thursday Jimmy Kimmel: 'I was wrong' to share deceptive Pence video Scarborough apologizes to Pence, Cruz after heated Twitter feud MORE Live!” in what was billed as an “abbreviated quarantine digital edition” of the late-night show. 

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He also held a virtual press conference with reporters this week where he attacked Trump for wanting to reopen businesses around Easter. He signaled he wanted to move on to the general election, dismissing the idea of another debate with Sanders.

“I think we’ve had enough debate,” Biden told reporters, all quarantined in their own homes. “I think we should get on with this.” 

Democratic strategist Jim Manley said Biden finds himself in “tricky terrain right now.”

“My hope is that he’s going to raise his visibility to show the contrast with Trump,” Manley said. 

Referring to Sanders, Manley said he should “do the right thing and step aside, but it’s clear that’s not going to happen.”

“It’s pretty evident that he’s going to plow ahead like he did last time,” he continued, adding that it has the potential to hurt Biden in the general in the same way it cost Clinton in 2016.

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One major Democratic donor agreed that the former vice president also needs to find ways to breakthrough to avoid being an afterthought. 

Asked about the campaign’s current playbook, the donor summed up: “It’s not great.”

At the same time, keeping Biden out of the news cycle also has its advantages.

“But to the extent this is a strategy, it’s a strategy of letting Trump bury himself ... [and] avoiding unforced errors is not a bad one,” the donor added. “If he were a commanding speaker and not prone to gaffes, I’d advise differently.”