Despite Rahm Emanuel’s infamous admonition to “never let a crisis go to waste,” Biden is doing just that. Coronavirus is an unprecedented crisis, simultaneously straining Trump’s presidency on the health and economic fronts. Biden should be pulling away under such circumstances. But he is not, and that is ominous for Democrats.
A school of thought exists that Biden’s non-campaigning strategy is separating him from a sinking Trump. That school is called “wishful thinking.” It is wrong.
On January 20, America had its first confirmed coronavirus case. Averaging the three national presidential election polls that included that day in their sample, Biden then led Trump 49.7 percent to 42.3 percent.
Over three months — including 81,000 deaths, 1.4 million confirmed cases, and 33 million lost jobs — later, and Biden’s lead has shrunk. Using RealClearPolitics’ current average of national polling, Biden now leads Trump 46.8 percent to 42.4 percent.
If Biden cannot win by default during the height of coronavirus, he never can.
To put the president’s resiliency into context, Rasmussen’s May 11, 2020, daily tracking poll showed likely voters gave Trump a 48 percent approval rating (and a 50 percent disapproval rating). Rasmussen’s May 11, 2012, tracking poll found likely voters gave Obama just a 44 percent approval rating. Of course, Obama faced neither the coronavirus health or economic impact; yet Obama would go onto to win reelection handily less than six months later.
While Biden’s shelter-in-place campaign has isolated him from the public, he has not stayed in the same place in the polls. Trump’s support has remained resilient, but Biden’s has dropped almost three points — and with it his lead.
That Biden’s lead has dropped during the height of America’s largest disaster in memory is amazing. For Democrats, it should be terrifying.
Trump has had one of the worst years any American president has ever had. Having only won office with 46 percent of the popular vote and approval ratings consistently in the mid-40s, Trump opened 2020 with his impeachment and coronavirus paralyzing America.
By standard benchmarks, Trump should be reeling. Almost a century ago, Hoover won the presidency in a landslide, only to collapse under the Great Depression. Yet Trump is holding his base under a seemingly similar trial. For those thinking Trump is a fluke, think again.
By the same assumption, Biden should be soaring. In 1932, FDR was coasting to the presidency simply by not being Hoover. Not only is Biden not coasting, he is reversing. Nor has Biden had bad press. Actually, Biden has had virtually no press at all, and he and his campaign have worked hard for that anonymity. To avoid displaying his weaknesses, he has hidden. The establishment media has obligingly cooperated — even largely ignoring the sexual assault allegations against him.
Clearly, Biden’s do-nothing strategy will not work. With it goes the Democrats’ best hope of Biden avoiding self-destruction and capitalizing on Trump’s struggle under coronavirus pressure. If Biden cannot win by default during the height of coronavirus, he never can. In sum: hiding Biden isn’t working.
To beat Trump, Biden will have to work at campaigning. But for Biden campaigning does not work. He did not win the nomination by out-campaigning his rivals — he won it by merely outlasting them. He certainly cannot out-campaign Trump. If Biden does not campaign, though, the race will continue swinging even more toward Trump as coronavirus’s impact drops.
Biden is at his weakest when he is most public. So, his campaign adapted, opting to be unseen and avoid self-inflicted damage. With all eyes on the president, the coronavirus crisis should have been ideal for Biden’s disappearance and Trump’s self-immolation.
Yet Biden is sinking back, not pulling away. At a time when he desperately needed to build support, he is losing it.
Democrats must worry that Biden will sink further as he campaigns more, while Trump will rise as coronavirus subsides and his incumbent advantage emerges. Democrats’ biggest fear is that their best hope was for coronavirus to beat Trump, because Biden — campaigning or not campaigning — cannot.
J. T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.