Biden under pressure to step up coronavirus response

Former Vice President Joe Biden is under pressure to find new ways to command the spotlight amid criticism that he’s cut too low of a profile as the coronavirus crisis has worsened.

Some Democrats want to see Biden, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, as the public face for the party in offering a countermessage to President Trump.

Trump has seen an uptick in his approval rating over the past two weeks, even as the daily White House briefings have had a circus-like atmosphere and the president’s claims have been picked apart.

Biden, meanwhile, had not spoken on camera for nearly a week when he broadcast a live video from his home in Delaware on Monday to criticize Trump’s “planning and preparation” for the virus.

Several former Obama administration officials told The Hill that’s not enough.

“You’re constantly hearing about [Andrew] Cuomo, and I know he’s the governor of New York, but Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee,” one former official said. “He needs to show his leadership.”

“Here’s a guy who has deep relationships on the Hill, who understands how we govern, and he’s largely been on the sidelines,” the former official said. “I know a lot of us expect more from him in this moment.”

Biden is in some ways captive to forces that are beyond his control.

The former vice president has been pulled off the campaign trail and is homebound, like many Americans, due to the pandemic.

Biden is not the party’s official nominee yet and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is still in the race, though the progressive senator has very little chance of winning.

Trump has an unmatched bully pulpit from the White House, while Democratic governors, such as Cuomo and Gavin Newsom in California, are coordinating the responses for their respective states.

And some Biden allies fear that the former vice president would look like he’s trying to capitalize politically in a time of crisis if he’s at the tip of the spear for the Democratic response.

“This is bigger than Joe, and at a certain point there’s only so much good you can do with your words,” said Howard Gutman, a former Obama administration ambassador. “You begin to look small if you’re just on the sidelines criticizing. Every one of us supports the president right now, and politics is a luxury none of us can afford. There will be plenty of time for it. Voters will decide who leads the country in November. It’s not a time for rhetoric right now.”

The Biden campaign says it will begin ramping up his public appearances this week and to expect to see more from the former vice president, both in broadcasts from his home and through television interviews.

The campaign has been racing to outfit Biden’s home with high-speed internet and a television studio so that he can address the country from there. Biden will appear on ABC’s The View on Tuesday.

But prior to his Monday address, Biden had been criticized for being absent from the scene.

Sanders, who has a strong digital operation, has been holding his own roundtable events with lawmakers that have attracted hundreds of thousands of views and shares, underscoring the degree to which the Biden campaign has been behind the curve on digital outreach.

“It’s a big problem,” said Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb. “I don’t know what’s going on in the strategic think with Vice President Biden’s team … but I want to see Vice President Biden. I want to see him command the room like Cuomo and Gavin Newsom are.”

In Biden’s speech Monday, he argued that a “failure of planning and preparation” by the White House has worsened the health and economic crises the nation faces. 

The former vice president accused the Trump administration of ignoring early warning signs about the pandemic and of downplaying the disease at critical points when the virus was primarily concentrated in China.

And he laid out four points of action he wants to see the government take.

Biden said Trump must authorize the Defense Production Act to order companies to make critical health care supplies, such face masks.

He also said the president must employ the armed forces and National Guard to expand hospital capacity, that Trump must “end the infighting and bickering” between political officials and health experts in his administration and that he must “set the right priorities for the economic response” by directing cash to average workers, rather than big companies and their executives. 

“Trump keeps saying he’s a wartime president. Well, start to act like one,” Biden said.

The address did not go seamlessly. At one point, it appeared that a teleprompter failed. Biden signaled with his hand to a staffer to move along and then appeared to abandon one of his talking points.

None of the networks cut away to air Biden’s remarks, as they do for the briefings at the White House with Trump and his team.

“If networks don’t take him live, I can’t see those briefings being terribly effective,” one ally said. 

Another major Democratic donor said Biden’s campaign needs to figure out a better way of communicating to the public to cut through all the noise. 

“Trump has a clear advantage here,” the donor said. “He can speak directly to the American people whenever he wants, and Biden needs to make sure he’s not an afterthought. He has to be part of the discussion, because this is the way life is going to be for a while.” 

Biden says that he’s working with lawmakers behind the scenes. He says he’s been in touch with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) about the best course of action for Congress, although the campaign declined to elaborate on their discussions.

Some Biden allies say that’s enough for now, that he shouldn’t be trying to act like a shadow president when he’s not officially the nominee.

“It’s a tough balance to strike when you’re taking on a wartime president,” said one Democrat who has raised money for Biden.

“Once Sanders drops out and Biden is the de facto nominee, they’ll put him out everywhere. But the worst thing he could do right now is make this about politics. He should stick to talking about how he was in the Situation Room dealing with the Ebola crisis and how he’ll fix these problems on his first day in the Oval Office, even if those things aren’t what’s driving the news,” the Democrat added. “There are a lot of things he just shouldn’t do while there’s a contested primary and a national crisis. There will be plenty of time to do those things later.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi

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