In 2016, Hillary Clinton made Trump president; in 2020, Joe Biden is making Trump presidential. Which was more unlikely is debatable; what is clear in both is that Democrats have done something Trump alone could not have accomplished. Coronavirus has brought about Trump’s resurgence and Biden’s disappearance, opening a perception gap that will be hard to close in the next eight months.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton turned the inevitable into the impossible and made Trump president. She campaigned abysmally. She won the party’s lowest popular vote percentage since her husband’s in 1992. She turned a popular vote victory into the party’s lowest electoral vote total since Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Biden now appears intent on rewriting the adage “absence makes the heart fonder” into “absence makes Trump a second-termer.” If Hillary turned inevitable into impossible and Trump into president, Biden is about to turn the impossible into the unthinkable by turning Trump from president into presidential.
Of course, Biden had help. Democrats’ impeachment fiasco allowed Trump to be acquitted by Senate majorities and his presidency to be validated. Then there was the Iowa debacle, where the party could not run caucuses but aspired to run the country. Next was their State of the Union performance, where bitterness turned into pettiness in front of the whole country.
Democrats’ bad primary season only furthered Trump’s transformation. Democrats went from a crowded and confused field to a confused front-runner. To avoid Biden’s increasing mistakes, he adopted a strategy of decreasing his exposure and letting his surge in momentum carry him across the finish line — and away from public scrutiny.
Biden’s “No Show Joe” gambit was as understandable as it was unavoidable. His public mistakes were increasing and becoming more severe. They threatened his viability for nomination and November. Encountering live give-and-take only heightened his camp’s concerns. So they ceased it.
But this avoidance strategy’s coincidence with coronavirus could not have been worse for Biden. His virtual presence during the coronavirus crisis cannot keep pace with Trump’s omnipresence. While Biden has been nowhere, Trump has been everywhere — in person, on the Hill, at press conferences, on TV, and tweeting — and seemingly non-stop. It has been “No Show” versus “On the Go.”
The coronavirus crisis has played to Trump’s predilection for active unilateralism and his constitutional role as commander-in-chief. It has justified his modus operandi and forced Democrats to go from critics of his executive authority to followers. But even congressional Democrats have far outpaced Biden’s presence. Biden is an afterthought, a footnote to Trump’s story.
Biden’s strategy had been to avoid the public and his weaknesses while letting opponents’ weaknesses doom them. But so far, people have seen Trump’s handling of coronavirus as a strength, not a weakness at all. In contrast, it is impossible to see Biden doing what Trump is doing — if for no other reason than it has been impossible to see Joe.
Coronavirus has elevated Trump and relegated Biden. Some of this was inevitable; crises make presidents focal points. Still, this time it has been accentuated to a far greater degree than normal or expected.
Democrats have expected Trump to play down to their worst impression of him. He has not, and most importantly, he has not to the audience that matters: the American public. Even if Democrats do not like it, they find themselves forced to go along and deliver him big wins — as with enactment in record time of the largest rescue effort in American history. The effect has been that Trump has never looked more presidential than he does confronting the coronavirus crisis.
Yet Trump has looked even more presidential because Biden has never looked less up to the presidency. If Trump did not live down to Democrats’ worst opinions of him, Biden has exacerbated their worst fears of him.
The effect is a dramatic presidential gap between Trump and Biden. In November, it is this gap voters will consider. Then the contest will not be one between Trump and a presidential ideal — the kind of comparison that keeps Trump’s presidential approval in the high 40 percentages — it will be one between Trump and Biden alone. In the case of coronavirus, it has been no contest at all.