Biden Takes on Mantle of Nominee as Virus Overhangs Campaign

Joe Biden, the all-but-certain Democratic presidential nominee, wakes up to a world and a campaign changed by the coronavirus, a new direction that works in his favor against what will be a blistering general election fight already beginning.

Biden has received positive reviews for his efforts to offer himself as a more sure-footed alternative to President Donald Trump, who struggled in the early days of the crisis over COVID-19. What voters appeared to disdain early in his campaign — the steady hand of experience pulling the levers of government in a crisis — now can be an asset, Biden’s campaign believes.

The former vice president has other advantages as well. He is better positioned than some of his vanquished rivals to regain the white, middle-income men in the industrial Midwest who four years ago voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton, even if they were Democrats.

In Ohio and Michigan, states that Trump flipped into the Republican column in 2016, polls show Biden leading Trump by several points in head-to-head matchups.

“Our goal as a campaign and my goal as a candidate for president is to unify this party and then to unify the nation,” Biden said in a livestreamed speech from his home after he won the Florida and Illinois primaries on Tuesday, and before he had been declared the victor in Arizona as well.

But his chief Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, isn’t giving up on the race yet, and his continued presence also helps influence the Democratic platform as the coronavirus crisis gives new currency to his views on health care and economics.

The chance of Sanders regaining the lead in delegates needed for the nominating convention is so small, he would need to win the remaining states by an average of 15-20 percentage points, according to the Biden campaign’s calculations, a difficult feat given that Biden has led the newest national polls by a 2-to-1 margin.

Democrats say they believe the twin crises in public health and the economy give Biden a clearing to make the same arguments about Trump’s character and performance, but in a new way.

“For three years people have been concerned about Trump’s character flaws. They saw Trump as chaotic and selfish but they weren’t sure they cared enough about those character flaws. Now they’re seeing the price and the consequence,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who advised Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

“It’s not a contrast that Joe Biden has to tell people about because it naturally shows to anyone who’s watching,” he said. “In politics, there’s a premium on opportunities to show people the difference between candidates, and with Trump’s malpractice on coronavirus that’s being shown really clearly to people.”

Jared Bernstein, Biden’s top economic adviser during his first vice presidential term, said his former boss “has a unique edge” honed when he worked on the Obama administration’s economic recovery efforts in 2009.

“Biden naturally tunes into the pain that households and families feel but he is completely open to people like myself talking about the linkages between the interventions to offset the macro shock and how they play out in individuals’ lives,” he said.

Bernstein, who has advised the Biden campaign, says there’s little concrete help the candidate can offer now during the crisis. “But he has potential, if he wins the primary, to be able to help frame the response to the downturn,” he said. “The open question is how they will work their way into the actual policy process that is ongoing.”

So far, Trump has shown little interest in seeking Biden’s advice and rival candidates almost never do. But Trump, sensing the country’s unease with his early approach regarding the virus and perhaps seeing Biden’s measured speeches, took a new tack on Monday, with a more serious tone and concrete policy measures.

Biden enters the general election in a strong position. For all the talk of his uninspiring candidacy, he’s benefited from record levels of primary-voting turnout in several states. He could be on track for a better showing among white men than Clinton had, all while drawing black and women voters.

The coronavirus, with all the public health and economic challenges it brings, also is the kind of crisis that has historically benefited the party that is out of power, as it did when Barack Obama won in 2008.

Yet Trump has plenty of advantages and, until the coronavirus hit, was favored for a second term thanks to the economy, incumbency and an enthusiastic base. He’s unafraid to level personal attacks and has survived impeachment that centered on Biden’s son Hunter.

As Biden has gained strength recently, Trump and his allies have renewed their interest in Hunter Biden and have begun to openly question Biden’s mental acuity.

“WOW! Sleepy Joe doesn’t know where he is, or what he’s doing. Honestly, I don’t think he even knows what office he’s running for!” Trump tweeted earlier this month, responding to a video of Biden gaffes that aired on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program.

A Trump Target, Again

“Joe Biden is the same rotting corpse of a candidate he was three weeks ago,” read a post last week on a Trump campaign Twitter account. “It’s just that Democrats have decided that they would be better off with the dead guy than with Crazy Bernie.” The post was widely assailed as being in especially bad taste amid the public health crisis.

While Biden is dominant among black voters and doing well among white men, he must be sure to secure young, women and Latino voters for the battle against Trump.

In a bid for the key female voters, Biden made a surprise announcement in Sunday’s debate, promising to pick a woman as his running mate. Key supporter Jim Clyburn, an influential South Carolina congressman, has gone further, saying he wanted to see a woman of color. Former rival and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham have all been mentioned.

Biden also has to achieve what Clinton couldn’t — encouraging Sanders’s supporters to vote for him in November.

“There’s a lot of reasons why young people are really nervous about Joe Biden and his candidacy,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a Democratic strategist who worked on Sanders’ 2016 campaign, referring to some of Biden’s stances during his long career in public life. “He can’t undo Anita Hill, he undo praising Strom Thurmond, he can’t undo wanting to cut Social Security.

Overtures and Concerns

“The thing he can do is try to understand and harness the energy of this new generation that’s trying to have a different brand of politics.”

In the past week, Biden has adopted the bankrupty plan of a fomer rival, Senator Elizabeth Warren, — which includes making it possible to discharge student-loan debt in bankruptcy proceedings — and proposed making public colleges and universities tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000 annually, a plan Sanders initially supported before offering to eliminate college tuition entirely.

“Those are steps in the right direction,” Ganapathy said.

Even united, Democrats have worried about how Biden would fare in a face-off with Trump given his early, lackluster performances. On Monday, a voter named Courtney from Tucson, Arizona, asked Biden in a virtual town hall how he would handle debating Trump, who she said has shown he will “hit you behind the knees in a debate.”

“He’s demonstrated he will do anything he can to mislead people about whoever his opponent is, including me,” he said. “I would handle it by telling the truth.” He added that he was “not going to, as my mother would say, take any of his guff,” he said. “I’m used to dealing with bullies.”

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