Joe Bi­den is work­ing to sig­nif­i­cantly es­ca­late his pub­lic pres­ence.

To counter Trump, White House hope­ful is tak­ing his fight on­line

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATT VISER AND AN­NIE LINSKEY [email protected]­post.com an­[email protected]­post.com

Joe Bi­den is at­tempt­ing to sig­nif­i­cantly es­ca­late his pub­lic pres­ence, fol­low­ing two weeks in which he has been con­fined to his home, a lim­i­ta­tion that left some Democrats wor­ried their party had lost a prom­i­nent na­tional voice to counter Pres­i­dent Trump.

Af­ter the March 17 pri­maries, Bi­den gave an elec­tion night speech from his home, but the poorly lit back­drop and grainy footage made even some of his sup­port­ers wince and com­pare it to a hostage video.

He tried a vir­tual town hall, which was rid­dled with tech­ni­cal glitches.

Democrats urged Bi­den’s cam­paign to try to wres­tle a place on­stage to bet­ter com­pete with Trump, and abruptly Bi­den has be­gun to change course.

Utiliz­ing a new cam­era that was in­stalled in his base­ment over the week­end, Bi­den sat for a round of tele­vi­sion in­ter­views that his ad­vis­ers said were meant to open a new phase in which the for­mer vice pres­i­dent will be far more vis­i­ble to Amer­i­cans as they nav­i­gate the na­tion’s twin health and eco­nomic crises. He took ques­tions from re­porters on Wed­nes­day and held a vir­tual happy hour with sup­port­ers Wed­nes­day night.

He ex­pressed dis­may over Trump’s re­sponse to the coro­n­avirus pandemic, ridi­cul­ing him for not do­ing more sooner, urg­ing him to lis­ten to sci­en­tific ex­perts and say­ing of the pres­i­dent’s plan to get Amer­i­cans back to work by Easter: “What’s he talk­ing about?”

“He should stop talk­ing and start lis­ten­ing to the med­i­cal ex­perts,” Bi­den said Tues­day on CNN. “What is go­ing on with this man?”

“He says he’s a wartime pres­i­dent — well, God, act like one,” he added. “Move. Fast.”

In the Wed­nes­day video con­fer­ence with re­porters, Bi­den again crit­i­cized Trump’s time­line.

“It would be a cat­a­strophic thing to do for our peo­ple and for our econ­omy if we sent peo­ple back to work just as we were be­gin­ning to see the im­pact of so­cial dis­tanc­ing take hold,” he said.

The drum­beat prompted re­lief from some Democrats who had wor­ried Bi­den was ren­der­ing him­self al­most in­vis­i­ble.

“A week ago I would have said he wasn’t present nearly enough. Now, it seems like they’re find­ing their foot­ing and he’s tak­ing the right tone,” said Julián Cas­tro, the for­mer hous­ing sec­re­tary un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and a for­mer Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

“He has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence and Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den does re­as­sure peo­ple,” Cas­tro added. “He should use that — and I think that’s why he needs to be more present.”

Although Bi­den has more than four decades of ex­pe­ri­ence as an elected of­fi­cial, he holds no cur­rent role that would give him pub­lic stand­ing amid the cri­sis, apart from be­ing the lead­ing can­di­date in the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial race. Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-VT.) is his sole re­main­ing com­peti­tor.

Trump’s daily brief­ings have been widely aired. Among Democrats, the most vis­i­ble daily ap­pear­ances have been made by two gov­er­nors, An­drew M. Cuomo of New York and Gavin New­som of Cal­i­for­nia.

In re­cent days, Bi­den also has de­ferred to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.) and Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), not want­ing to do or say anything to un­ravel del­i­cate ne­go­ti­a­tions in Congress over mea­sures to help work­ers and com­pa­nies.

That has at times made Bi­den more of a po­lit­i­cal by­stander than the party’s stan­dard-bearer.

“I have to tell you, I find that just like any­body who cares about this, I’m chomp­ing at the bit. I wish I were still in the Se­nate, be­ing able to im­pact on some of these things,” Bi­den told re­porters Wed­nes­day. “But I am where I am. I hope to be the nom­i­nee of the Demo­cratic Party. And I hope I’m able to get my mes­sage across as we go for­ward.”

Some Democrats have pri­vately told Bi­den that he has to do more to im­prove, say­ing that his low pro­file was driv­ing broad con­cerns that he wasn’t cap­i­tal­iz­ing on Trump’s widely panned early re­sponse.

“I have some sym­pa­thy for him be­cause it’s a hard thing. He has no for­mal re­spon­si­bil­ity. You can’t go out. You can’t have events. It’s hard,” said David Ax­el­rod, a Demo­cratic strate­gist who helped run Obama’s cam­paign dur­ing the eco­nomic cri­sis in 2008. “But I think there are things he could do. You can do things that are more in­ter­est­ing than giv­ing poorly pro­duced quasi-pres­i­den­tial speeches.”

Many Democrats pointed to a video fea­tur­ing Bi­den ad­viser Ron Klain — an ex­plainer, com­plete with a white­board, about Trump’s coro­n­avirus re­sponse and the holes in his ar­gu­ments — as a vi­ral suc­cess. But it also un­der­scored the fail­ings in Bi­den’s own events — speeches that have at times been halt­ing or be­set by tech­ni­cal prob­lems.

Other Democrats have or­ga­nized more seam­less ap­pear­ances. Over the past week, for­mer Texas con­gress­man Beto O’rourke has used Face­book Live sev­eral times to get mes­sages out. Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-mass.) head­lined two con­fer­ence calls with ac­tivists to gin up sup­port for the pri­or­i­ties she was push­ing to in­clude in con­gres­sional coro­n­avirus leg­is­la­tion.

San­ders held an on­line coro­n­avirus town hall on Tues­day night with Rep. Pramila Jaya­pal (DWash.) and health ex­perts, and he had an­other live stream on Wed­nes­day night.

All told, San­ders had held seven coro­n­avirus-re­lated events that were seen by 14 mil­lion view­ers. He also raised more than $2 mil­lion for var­i­ous char­i­ties that sup­port those af­fected by the out­break.

Bi­den cam­paign ad­vis­ers say they are try­ing to do more and at­tempt­ing to get him in front of a cam­era ev­ery day. They also are try­ing to hone other ideas, such as live-streamed con­ver­sa­tions with doc­tors or with young peo­ple, or events high­light­ing gro­cery work­ers and oth­ers whose roles have be­come es­sen­tial.

Driv­ing some of the anx­i­ety among Democrats is that Trump’s ap­proval rat­ing has in­creased amid the cri­sis. Bi­den on Wed­nes­day said that the em­pha­sis should be on Trump’s ac­tions, but he also sug­gested that it would be good for the country if Trump is seen as strong.

“Well, I hope that he does — he’s so strong that he’s up way above that,” he said of new Gallup job ap­proval num­bers. “Be­cause we need the help now.”

The de­mand by some Democrats that Bi­den more ag­gres­sively seek out at­ten­tion comes as key blocs of the party are be­gin­ning to co­a­lesce around his can­di­dacy. In the past few weeks, as he has won a string of pri­maries, sev­eral of the largest la­bor unions in the country have backed Bi­den.

“These two things give him the lat­i­tude to be the stan­dard-bearer of a fight for peo­ple and for work­ing fam­i­lies,” said Randi Wein­garten, the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, the county’s sec­ond-largest teach­ers union. “He now has the lat­i­tude to be the stan­dard-bearer, and I think you’re go­ing to see that more and more.”

Some Democrats pointed out that Bi­den has demon­strated he has an enor­mous well of sup­port among the party’s vot­ers, which gives him a wide berth to work out an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse to Trump.

“What that mir­a­cle of Su­per Tues­day showed is there really is a depth of sup­port for Bi­den in this country, even though he was com­ing off a year where he was not op­er­at­ing at the top of his game,” said Jen­nifer Palmieri, who was Hil­lary Clin­ton’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor in 2016. “I think he un­der­stands he’s a ves­sel for peo­ple who have de­cided, ‘You’re the guy that we want to take on

Trump.’ ”

Like other Amer­i­cans, Bi­den has found his own life al­tered in re­cent weeks. He is no longer sur­rounded daily by his ad­vis­ers, many of whom are now work­ing from home. In­stead, he has been hold­ing two 90-minute con­fer­ence calls each morn­ing, one with a group of health ex­perts and an­other with a team of eco­nomic ad­vis­ers.

In a chill­ing de­tail that in­di­cates the added anx­i­ety around his age — he is 77 — and med­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­ity, Bi­den re­vealed sev­eral days ago that when cam­paign work­ers oc­ca­sion­ally come to his house, they wear gloves and masks. He re­cently be­gan re­ceiv­ing pro­tec­tion from the Se­cret Ser­vice, and those agents, too, are wear­ing gloves and masks.

Bi­den said on Tues­day that he has not been tested for the coro­n­avirus and that his doc­tors have told him he does not have any un­der­ly­ing con­di­tions that could in­crease his risk, be­yond his age.

Bi­den has in­di­cated that he will soon be­gin nar­row­ing the op­tions for his run­ning mate, whom he has said will be a woman. His ini­tial list holds more than a dozen names, but he said he is at­tempt­ing to nar­row it down to about 11 for more se­ri­ous vet­ting.

His more im­me­di­ate con­cern is San­ders’s con­tin­ued pres­ence. Bi­den’s ad­vis­ers have been speak­ing to those close to the sen­a­tor, try­ing to find com­mon ground, although San­ders is show­ing no signs of an im­mi­nent de­par­ture and has said he would agree to an­other de­bate with Bi­den in April.

“I think we’ve had enough de­bates,” Bi­den told re­porters Wed­nes­day. “I think we should get on with this.”

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