We are in the middle of the greatest national emergency in recent history. The entire American economy has ground to a halt and there is a global pandemic threatening millions of lives. People are having to huddle in their homes, terrified, with no end in sight.
And in the midst of all this, the Democratic frontrunner for president is… nowhere to be found. Politico reports that “ever since his commanding victories Tuesday [the 17th] against Bernie Sanders in Florida, Illinois and Arizona, Biden has made no public appearances or statements.” He’s not being interviewed on television. He is not recording daily video messages, and videos on his social media accounts feature people who are not Joe Biden. His recent interaction with the public has apparently been limited to a single thumbs-up emoji posted on instagram. The Los Angeles Times recently wondered what Biden could be “doing all day.”
This an appalling failure of leadership. At a time when every American is looking for reassurance and a path out of this catastrophe, with a president who is so clearly incompetent, we need political leaders who seem like they know what they’re doing and have the situation in hand. Instead, Joe Biden has gone AWOL for a week.
It is reported that Biden will soon begin holding news conferences “hopefully, God willing, by Monday” and he is having his house fitted with special equipment so that he can eventually begin communicating with the American people. As an explanation for why Biden has been absent, it makes no sense. We live in the age of streaming video. I could pick up my iPhone right now and start communicating with you on video. I know the Biden campaign has struggled to master the basics of this before, but this has gotten to a point of absurdity.
Even assuming Biden does start talking to the public tomorrow (though they only said “as early as” Monday), he’s already shown himself totally incapable of handling a crisis. We are in a time when every single day matters as much as a month used to matter. To wander off for a week and have the papers wondering what you could even be doing is a sign that you are not up to the task of leading. If he shows up now, it is already far too late.
It is not the first time this has happened. Biden has been absent throughout the campaign, and people were asking “where is Joe?” in the leadup to the last debate. Biden declined interviews with all the news networks, leading Rachel Maddow to beg him on air to appear on her show as Bernie Sanders had done, though he reportedly had a conference call with some reporters on Friday the 20th. At a campaign rally in St. Louis on the 8th of this month, he showed up to speak for only seven minutes before disappearing again. All of this fueled speculation that Biden was hiding something, possibly serious cognitive decline, especially given how often on the campaign he had made bizarre, incoherent public statements. But Biden seemed to put these rumors to rest with a strong performance in the debate with Bernie Sanders: he was lively and sharp, and misspoke no more than any other normal person would, though he did lie shamelessly about a bunch of things.
Which raises the question: what is going on? Why is he dithering? Why is he allowing Trump to control the messaging at this crucial time, with no counter-narrative? Why, when a deadly virus is running rampant and throwing millions of people out of work overnight, is the Biden campaign replying “mañana, mañana”? Perhaps the feisty Joe of the debate will return as early as Monday, but why did he disappear and how can he have failed this badly? This is downright weird.
There are a few possible explanations, and all of them should worry Democrats. The first is that Joe Biden is unwell, that he was able to muster his energy for the debate but is not really in very good shape day to day. I have no idea whether this is true, but if it isn’t true, the fact that the Biden campaign has fueled this speculation by hiding him away is a mark of extreme incompetence, and if it is true then obviously he can’t be the Democratic leader right now during an unprecedented national crisis.
One other explanation is that Joe Biden is not speaking out because he has nothing to say. Historian Gabriel Winant rightly points out that one reason Biden’s performance is so bad is that “the response the situation actually demands would negate the whole logic of [establishment Democrats’] power and lead inexorably to its end.” That’s because Biden’s whole campaign has been spent attacking the left for demanding massive new public investment, paid leave and guaranteed income, and bold, immediate action to fight crises, plus free healthcare for all—and now we need all of the things centrist Democrats have long said we can’t have or will have to wait many years for. In a Great Depression, you need a New Deal, and we’re facing a Great Depression with a Democratic party that has rejected the foundations of New Deal social democracy. How can proud incrementalists and defenders of the status quo ever hope to fix this?
Democrats have generally been quite bad lately at doing much beyond attacking Trump, and Biden might have adopted some absurd principle like “you shouldn’t criticize the president too hard in a crisis.” Politico does say that early on Biden “held his fire against the president out of concern it would look too political.” Too political! This is unbelievable. People do not understand: the reason we are facing all of this is because of Donald Trump’s criminal failure to do the basic work necessary to keep the country safe. This is a politically-made crisis: Trump dismisses experts and prefers bluster to action, so now we’re faced with the possibility of a far deadlier crisis than we would be facing with an even marginally competent president. Other countries like Russia and South Korea currently face a far less dire situation than we do, in part because their government actually took the protection of public health seriously. Even now, Trump is still refusing to use the authority he has to order the production of necessary medical supplies, and brushing off requests for him to coordinate the distribution of supplies by saying the federal government is “not a shipping clerk.”
But the public does not necessarily understand themselves to have been hurt by their government, and if people just see Trump on television every day they will see an image of a man who seems to be doing his best in a moment of urgency. Trump’s approval rating for handling the disaster is 55%—even though he made it much worse than it ever had to be! Democrats need to expose the truth, to show that this is Hurricane Katrina x 1000. Perhaps, though, Joe Biden sees this as unseemly. As I have noted before, the Democratic establishment is weirdly incapable of criticizing Trump with sufficient moral force, in part because many of them are complicit in the things we need to expose about Trump (in this article about the mask shortage, a mask manufacturer says he tried to show both the Obama and Trump administration that outsourcing critical production of medical equipment overseas was a bad idea, and now we are faced with having to get the Hanes underwear plant to try to manufacture medical equipment, which is quite difficult to make.)
So why? Why why why why why is Joe Biden failing so badly? Let me point out that Bernie Sanders has been conducting constant livestreaming events and raised over 2 million dollars for coronavirus relief. Go on his social media and you will see him stepping up and saying what must be done. His campaign is pivoting to coronavirus relief, and I actually think the approach to the primary they should take from now on is this: try to deliver real benefits for Americans and then ask the electorate—during the remaining primaries and at the convention—to judge him on whether they think he has handled the crisis better than his opponent.
The LA Times asks “What is Biden doing?” What do we know right now about the answer to that question? An ABC News report today is discouraging. It says he does a lot of calls with important people, including “political endorsers and supporters.” On Friday’s call with reporters, Biden said:
“I find myself, literally on the phone with my key advisors, medical advisors and economic advisors literally four or five hours a day, going through detailed memoranda on what we should be doing,”
Four or five hours a day of work is not actually much during the greatest national emergency of our time, and it doesn’t sound from the article like Biden is doing much else. Also “going through detailed memoranda on what we should be doing” is different from “actually doing things.” (Again, lest you think it’s impossible for someone who is not the president to do anything, Sanders is organizing relief fundraising and mutual aid efforts.) The Biden campaign, meanwhile, is having endless meetings all day, coming up with many ideas for what they could do (including, according to ABC, “a yoga session with supporters”) but doing none of it. One excuse for why Biden hasn’t been doing videos is that in his Wilmington home “there aren’t particularly high ceilings, which can make lighting a challenge.” Another is that Biden is “trying to construct a digital campaign operation for a candidate so reliant on in-person interactions.” (Oh yeah, those great in-person interactions he’s famous for.)
I hope I don’t need to remind you that we are in a time when every moment matters. Maybe after all these meetings he will drift in and perform well. But coronavirus has provided a real-world test of how candidates would perform under pressure, and the answer is: Biden has failed. He has shown us what kind of president he would be in an emergency, and the answer is “a weak and ineffectual one,” as we thought. Now all Democrats need to face the question: do you really want to nominate someone who lets you down this badly when you need them most?