Cooped up in his Delaware home during the coronavirus pandemic, Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden is testing voters’ appetite for second-guessing the commander-in-chief in the middle of a national emergency.
Mr. Biden gave voters their first taste of his counterprogramming Monday when he cast Mr. Trump’s response to the coronavirus as too slow and too cavalier.
“Let me be clear: Donald Trump is not to blame for the coronavirus, but he does bear responsibility for our response,” Mr. Biden said in a livestream from his rec room. “And I, along with every American, hope he steps up and starts to get this right.”
The wind was at Mr. Biden’s back for most of this month, as he collected a series of primary wins and established what is widely considered an insurmountable lead in the Democratic presidential race.
The deadly coronavirus, however, upended the primary battle and essentially relegated him to the political sidelines, while much of the nation looks to Mr. Trump and his administration for answers.
Now he’s trying to strike a delicate balance between making sure his voice is part of the conversation without looking too political during a national crisis.
“This is not entirely without precedent, but it is unusual, in part because it is rare to conduct a presidential campaign in the midst of such a crisis,” said Allan Lichtman, a political science professor at American University.
Mr. Lichtman pointed out that Franklin Roosevelt leveled criticism at President Herbert Hoover’s response to the Great Depression during the 1932 presidential campaign, and that Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts attacked President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War during the 2004 presidential campaign.
“I don’t think there is much political risk to Biden,” Mr. Lichtman said. “Usually a president’s approval rating soars after a national crisis like 9/11, but President Trump’s rating has remained relatively constant in the low to mid-40% range.”
“It is much lower yet when considering those who strongly approve has remained relatively constant in the mid-20% range,” he said.
Mr. Trump has been front and center in the crisis.
He has held daily press briefings with federal officials that have driven much of the news coverage and given him a major bully pulpit from which to speak directly to a national audience.
Mr. Biden’s shadow briefings present operational and optical challenges, said GOP strategist Kevin Madden, who was a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“On the operational side, there is a real risk that when you attempt to counterprogram the federal response you run the risk of undermining it with dueling information and competing protocols,” Mr. Madden said. “On the optics, having the White House as a backdrop is a distinct advantage for the president.”
By design, the trappings of the White House communicate authority at a time of crisis.
“Communicating from a makeshift studio in Delaware can look small by comparison and could potentially undermine any message Biden hopes to promote,” said Mr. Madden.
Mr. Biden is still working out the kinks.
On Monday, he motioned to a staffer in an apparent attempt to speed up the script and he also mixed up the name of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, calling him “Charlie Parker” — the legendary jazz saxophonist.
Let me get this straight. The Biden camp has INSISTED for the past six days that—rather than simply hiding from the public—he was tirelessly briefing with top COVID19 experts. Now, in his first public address in a week, he can’t remember what he learned. pic.twitter.com/M6uNXOzzq8
— Aren R. LeBrun (@proustmalone) March 23, 2020
Still, Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, said Mr. Biden is smart to get more into the mix and should start seizing on those opportunities more frequently.
“The president can get media attention every day, keeping him in the public eye through the media in a way that few others else can,” Mr. Elleithee said. “But that’s not always a good thing, given his erratic performance and all of the untrue things he’s saying.”
This rambling mess is what we waited almost a week for…
— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) March 23, 2020
“Biden is one of the few people that can seize a platform to truly challenge that,” he said. “The fact that this is happening in the digital era means that Biden doesn’t need to rely on traditional tactics. He can create his own opportunities to talk with voters directly, going around the media. Ads aren’t enough. He has an opportunity to draw a contrast with the president by exhibiting leadership, and addressing people’s concerns, as opposed to dismissing them.”
In his first briefing, Mr. Biden distanced himself from Mr. Trump and the GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, criticizing them for pushing a bailout that would give big corporations a “blank check” without any assurances that they will not hand out pink slips and will keep paying employees.
Joe Biden finally appeared before the American public after being MIA for nearly a week where he read a rehearsed speech.
What the hell is going on with Joe that he is incapable of speaking to the people without a teleprompter or cue cards?
— anti-fascist sister (@BernForBernie20) March 23, 2020
Senate Democrats raised similar objects Monday when they blocked a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus economic rescue packaged from advancing in the chamber.
trump is going to have a field day impersonating joe biden trying to use a teleprompter
— Current Affairs (@curaffairs) March 23, 2020
“Our guiding principle must be to keep everyone paid through this crisis — everyone,” Mr. Biden said.
“Here is my bottom line, millions of small businesses, like the family-run restaurant that is trying to stay open to pay its workers, they should get the funds they need, and companies will need help too,” he said. “But no blank checks. Corporations that take money from taxpayers, they have to make an enforceable commitment that they will keep workers on the payroll.”
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