WASHINGTON — Under normal circumstances, this past Tuesday would almost certainly have brought Joe Biden another major victory, in Georgia, and the media would have been abuzz with his continuing surge in the Democratic primary.
Instead, the former vice president and likely presidential nominee is like most of us: stuck at home and relying on sometimes shaky technology to communicate with the outside world.
Now, instead of delivering victory speeches, building his case against President Donald Trump and possibly sealing the nomination, Biden has been largely sidelined. Trump and high-profile governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom are the faces broadcast to America as they steer the country through a crisis.
Biden, despite decades in public office, has no formal role.
“I’m chomping at the bit,” he told reporters Wednesday, when he took questions over the same kind of video chat everyday people are using to communicate with friends and family. “I wish I were still in the Senate being able to impact on some of these things ... but I am where I am.”
He was in a rec room in his Delaware home, wearing a checked shirt and blazer as he sat in front of a bookcase and a folded flag that flew over the Capitol when his son, Beau, died. He said he meets each day with economic advisers and medical experts about ways to confront the coronavirus, is in touch with lawmakers and governors, and has released his own plans.
The news briefing was part of a series of television appearances and online chats the Biden team rolled out to try to inject him back into the national conversation. But even those events showed the challenge.
His remote interview on The View on Tuesday was preempted in New York and Washington as Cuomo and District Mayor Muriel Bowser laid out their latest steps to combat the virus.
And while Biden speaks from a newly constructed studio in his home, he’s contending with a president on camera every day amid the grandeur of the White House. Trump held a Fox News town hall this week in the Rose Garden and leads daily news conferences from the White House briefing room, standing alongside medical experts and emergency response leaders in dress uniforms. His events, carried live by cable news networks, can run for more than an hour and feature heaping amounts of praise for Trump (often from himself).
On Thursday, the president’s schedule included calls with world leaders and all 50 governors.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has blasted Biden as trying “to play a sorry interpretation of a president.”
Frank Luntz, a Republican public opinion expert, said “in times of real crisis" a sitting executive officeholder has an advantage over a candidate.
“Governor Cuomo has emerged as the star of the Democratic Party, and a real national leader, because he’s managing, strategizing, and doing — every day," Luntz said by email. "It’s hard for Biden to break through because he’s really got nothing to do.”
Kenneth Jarin, a Philadelphia attorney and prominent Biden fund-raiser, acknowledged that “in the absence of the primaries, without the rhythm of this part of the campaign, I think it’s harder to get the press to pay attention.”
But he argued that there is still a long time until the general election, and said the crisis could bring out Biden’s strengths.
“People are looking to the vice president for expressions of leadership and guidance in this troubled time, particularly given the bizarre and erratic behavior and statements of the president,” Jarin said.
The Biden team has scrambled to try to find new ways to put him in the spotlight.
They built a studio in his home (after an initial effort at a campaign speech was poorly lit and low quality) and used it for appearances Tuesday on ABC’s The View, CNN, and MSNBC. On Wednesday, he hosted a remote call with reporters and a virtual “happy hour” with young supporters, moderated by Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, of Philadelphia.
He also launched a newsletter this week and plans a podcast.
It’s not the same as a victorious campaign rally, or a rope line where Biden is known for his human touch. But a campaign aide said they were trying to replicate that experience as best they can.
In Wednesday’s happy hour, Biden talked up his love for ice cream and his 1967 Corvette.
“Joe Biden is the best retail politician in America, and our challenge now is to translate his talent for connecting with people to the digital world," said T.J. Ducklo, a campaign spokesperson. He said more than 300,000 tuned in to the happy hour.
Yet the limitations also come through.
At times in his virtual events, Biden’s audio has cut out. He stumbled and garbled his words in one speech as he waved toward the camera (or maybe an aide) when it appeared a teleprompter had stalled. He mentioned a map he had to the hosts of The View before adding that they couldn’t see it.
Meredith Kelly, a Democratic communications strategist who previously worked on New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential run, praised the Biden team’s efforts, but suggested the former vice president would also do well to reach out through less traditional outlets as people seek information anywhere they can. She pointed, for example, to NBA star Stephen Curry’s interview Thursday on Instagram with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious-disease expert — a combination that generated a wave of online buzz.
Kelly also pointed to another potential hitch for Biden. Even though he has built a nearly insurmountable lead in the race for the Democratic nomination, the pressure on Sen. Bernie Sanders to drop out has eased because there have been no elections to draw attention to Biden’s advantage, or expand it. (Biden was heavily favored in Ohio and Georgia; both delayed their votes because of the coronavirus).
“There is less focus on the fact that Bernie Sanders is still lingering out there because of this virus and I think, frankly, there’s less pressure on him to drop out than their normally would be,” she said.
Sanders, meanwhile, has held his own online events and has been actively legislating as part of the Senate. His campaign said he expects to participate in an April Democratic debate if it goes forward.
Biden told CNN: “I think we’ve had enough debates. I think we should get on with this.”
Kelly worried that rather than turning their focus to Trump, Democrats could find themselves in a continuing internal fight when national attention returns to politics, whenever that is.