Joe Biden, aiming to refocus the presidential race back to the coronavirus pandemic, denounced President Trump’s approach to reopening schools in the midst of the outbreak and accused the president of being absent in the face of a “national emergency.”
“If President Trump and his administration had done their jobs early on with this crisis, America’s schools would be open and would be open safely,” Biden said in a speech in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. “Instead, American families all across this country are paying the price for his failures.”
The address marks Biden’s latest attempt to claim the mantle as the candidate most likely to keep the country safe, challenging the central pitch for Trump’s reelection bid. While Trump has prioritized talking about crime over the coronavirus by calling himself the “law and order president,” Biden has tried to strike a balance between condemning violence, supporting those who seek police reform and reframing the definition of security to include protection from the pandemic and economic instability.
The schools dilemma has taken on added resonance as the start of the academic year approaches, and families across the country are contending with a patchwork of approaches, from in-person instruction to virtual learning. Many parents and educators have been torn between their worries about contagion, and the downsides of keeping children at home, including socialization and developmental harm, inequities in remote instruction and the difficulty for adults to balance work and child care.
Trump has urged for full reopening of schools, seeing it as crucial to revive the economy that had been battered by the virus.
Biden released his proposal for safe school reopening earlier this summer, emphasizing reducing spread of the virus in communities, setting national guidelines to inform decisions by local education officials and providing more than $30 billion to improve school infrastructure and broadband capabilities.
He called on Trump to pass emergency funding to aid schools, and condemned the president as too distracted to fulfill his self-described role as a dealmaker.
“That’s what you should be focused on — getting our kids back to school safely … not whipping up fear and division, not inciting violence in our streets,” Biden said. “Get off Twitter and start talking to the congressional leaders of both parties.”
Campaign surrogates have echoed the former vice president’s argument that it is Trump, not Biden, who threatens the nation’s safety.
Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat from Las Vegas, said it was no surprise that Americans were worried, ticking off a list of concurrent challenges they are facing: the pandemic, an economic downturn, unjustified police violence and a rise in white nationalist activity.
“The common thread in all of this is an incumbent president who takes no responsibility for the crisis that we’re in. He cares more about his reelection, obviously, than he does about the American people,” she said in a call with reporters.
By focusing on the coronavirus, Biden is returning to more solid political ground, as polling shows a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. The campaign said the address was not an attempt to change the subject from the president’s law and order messaging, but a reflection of the true concerns of voters.
“I would argue that the spotlight never left COVID,” said senior campaign adviser Symone Sanders on Tuesday.
“Just because President Trump and the Trump campaign want to speak about everything else other than the coronavirus … does not mean that this is not top of mind for folks across this country.”
Biden finished his speech with a rare news conference, including fielding questions about his plans to travel to Kenosha, Wis., on Thursday for a community meeting. The town, roughly 30 miles south of Milwaukee, was plunged into unrest after police shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back, leaving him paralyzed. Biden said that in the case of Blake, and in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, the judicial system should “work its way,” but added that “at a minimum, [the officers involved] need to be charged.”
Trump visited Kenosha earlier this week, despite concerns from local officials that it would inflame tensions, and pledged to help damaged businesses rebuild. Biden was asked if his visit would similarly raise concerns about exacerbating divisions, and said he received “overwhelming requests” to travel to Kenosha.
“We’ve got to heal. We’ve got to put things together, bring people together,” Biden said. “And so, my purpose in going will be to do just that, to be a positive influence on what’s going on.”
Democrats in Wisconsin were pleased with the news of Biden’s visit to what will be a crucial battleground state in the election.
“He’s really good at bringing people together across divides. It’s his signature thing — he’s able to empathize,” said Ben Wikler, chairperson of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “He brings calm. He wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s both what Kenosha needs and why he’s the right president for now.”
Republicans painted the trip as a desperate and panicked move.
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, noted on a call with reporters that Biden declined to accept the nomination in Milwaukee during last month’s Democratic National Convention, citing concerns over COVID-19.
“Has the science changed in that period of time or has Joe Biden’s desperation in this campaign changed?” Murtaugh said.
Murtaugh predicted that Biden “will give platitudes that everyone agrees with like all ‘violence is bad.’ He won’t call the rioters for what they are: left wing radicals aligned with his party.”
Trump, meanwhile, has not condemned violence committed by his supporters, such as Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who was charged with the killing of two people during unrest in Kenosha last week.
“The president said very clearly … that he does not believe that people should take the law into their own hands,” Murtaugh said, without naming Rittenhouse or specifically condemning him.
Biden was also asked about the upcoming presidential debates, the first of which will be on Sept. 29, moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News. He joked that he’d want to see a crawl at the bottom of the television screen checking facts in real time.
“I think that would make a great, great debate if everything both of us said was instantly fact checked,” he said, adding that nothing would dissuade him from participating. The moderators of the subsequent debates will be Steve Scully of C-SPAN and Kristin Welker of NBC News, while Susan Page of USA Today will moderate the vice presidential debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced.
Also on Wednesday, the Biden campaign said that it, along with the Democratic Party, raked in more than $364 million during the month of August, a staggering sum that surpasses previous fundraising records.
The haul coincided with the addition of California Sen. Kamala Harris to the ticket. The vice presidential hopeful has been an assiduous fundraiser for the campaign.
Biden said the vast sum would be needed to “counter the lies that are being told by Trump’s campaign,” as well as promote his own vision for the country.
Times staff writers Noah Bierman and Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.
©2020 the Los Angeles Times