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Jeff Jacoby / Mar. 26, 2020

Coronavirus Has Forced Biden Far From His Comfort Zone — and It Shows

Joe Biden is in an awkward position. Whatever your politics, it is hard not to sympathize with his plight.

Joe Biden is in an awkward position. Whatever your politics, it is hard not to sympathize with his plight.

If this were a typical political season, Biden would be riding high. After his sweep of last week’s primaries, he is presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Under normal circumstances, the former vice president would be focused on reaching out to rival Bernie Sanders’s supporters and uniting his party behind him, while simultaneously making the pivot to a general election footing. He would be working overtime to leverage his astonishing political resurrection and the tide of good press it brought him into an appeal to independents and disaffected Donald Trump voters. He would be wooing voters with his trademark warmth and relatability at rallies and parades. He would be steadily advancing the message that if Americans elect him president, their government and political culture will become less nasty and more normal.

But he can’t do those things. Coronavirus and its quarantines have put the presidential race into suspended animation. Through no fault of his own, Biden is blocked from campaigning in the only way he’s used to. He’s a candidate famous for his empathy, running against an incumbent without a shred of empathy — but empathy doesn’t help him amid nationwide social distancing.

Meanwhile, the campaign clock is ticking and there is just one subject every voter in the country cares about. The president Biden hopes to unseat is on TV every day talking about it — and apparently winning approval as he does so.

So, like a lot of people now working remotely, Biden has been forced to take his White House quest online. It’s a strategy he would never willingly have chosen, but needs must when the devil drives. Biden announced last week that he would give regular shadow briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic, with the goal, in Politico’s words, of showing “how he would handle the crisis and address what he calls the lies and failures of President Trump.”

Biden’s first such “briefing” was on Monday. But though he did it in his basement rec room at home in Delaware, it was clear just how far from his comfort zone he was.

For starters, it wasn’t a briefing. Though Biden claims to be consulting with “medical advisors and economic advisors literally four or five hours a day,” he had no new information to impart. He echoed some standard criticisms of Trump’s handling of the crisis, at one point quoting President Lincoln’s frustrated message to a sluggish general during the Civil War: “If you don’t want to use the army, may I borrow it?”

But Biden himself came across as little better than sluggish. His remarks weren’t engaging or stirring. It’s hard to imagine that anyone watching, with the possible exception of Biden’s most devoted fan, came away more enthusiastic or encouraged. Without the energy of a crowd to buoy him, he seemed lost and unconvincing. At one point he could be seen frantically gesturing when his teleprompter stopped moving.

In fairness, this was Biden’s first attempt; perhaps he’ll get better over time. Will it be enough? If he is to have any chance of defeating an incumbent president in the midst of a national trauma, Biden needs to convince tens of millions of voters not only that he is ready to take over the presidency, but that he can handle the job more effectively and successfully. That’s a steep climb for any challenger — no sitting president has been defeated since 1992. It’s far steeper for a challenger stuck at home.

I don’t endorse Biden’s policy views, but I wholeheartedly applaud his call for restoring respect, civility, and kindness to the conduct of the presidency. Like countless viewers, I was appalled when Trump, asked during a briefing what he would say to Americans frightened by the pandemic, snarled: “I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say.”

Over the weekend, the Biden campaign released a video contrasting Trump’s answer to the one Biden gave when asked a comparable question during a debate. Where the president was bitter and insulting, the former vice president was calm and encouraging. The video captured one of the core values at stake in this year’s election, and showed the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer in a good light.

But packaged video can go only so far. Biden needs to be out on the campaign trail, connecting in person with the voters and communities on which the election will turn. No one has ever been elected president from his basement. It would be a cruel irony if Biden’s presidential hopes were miraculously resurrected only to be killed for good by a deadly epidemic.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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