WASHINGTON — If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, Joe Biden almost certainly would be winning Democratic primaries and locking up the nomination about now — coasting from one victory speech to another, basking in the cheers of his supporters and wall-to-wall media coverage.
Instead, the former vice president is marooned at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, doing a glitch-filled virtual town hall on Facebook Live and little-noticed cable news interviews in between phoning donors and volunteers to keep his presidential campaign afloat.
For a week or so, Biden’s struggle to stay visible caused a ripple of panic among Democrats.
“Where’s Biden?” memes pinballed across the internet after several days in which he didn’t appear on TV. He eventually reappeared on the daytime talk show “The View” — from his basement.
Part of Biden’s predicament is inescapable. A deadly contagion is far more pressing than the November election, and will remain so as long as Americans are dying in droves and the economy is heading off a cliff.
But in an odd way, being out of the public eye may be good for Biden’s prospects. He’s running as the I’m-not-Trump candidate, and voters will know that next fall even if he’s not on TV now.
Any reelection race is a referendum on the incumbent. That will be even more true for President Donald Trump given the public-health and economic catastrophes ravaging the country.
The most important factor in November will be what voters think about Trump’s leadership in this time of extraordinary crisis: Did he do a good job or a poor job trying to quell the pandemic and rescue the economy?
In effect, Trump is running against himself. More precisely, he’s running against the president who told us the coronavirus was nothing to worry about and claimed that anyone who wanted a test could get one, among many other falsehoods.
With the pandemic dominating our lives, Biden can only cause himself trouble if he tries to become the center of attention. People want to hear from the leaders making decisions, not from critics on the side.
Besides, unlimited TV time carries a risk for a candidate known as a gaffe machine.
The Biden basement tapes have been mostly error free, unless you count the time he coughed into his fist during an interview with CNN. Jake Tapper scolded him to use his elbow.
Biden holds virtual meetings with campaign staff, appears in digital town halls and does about a dozen media appearances a week. After a rocky start involving garbled audio and missed cues, the broadcasts have improved considerably.
“We were building the airplane while we were flying it,” a campaign aide told me.
Biden mostly plays the role of Shadow President, explaining what he would do in this crisis if he were in the Oval Office.
His policy message is generic Democrat: more energetic federal action, bigger economic stimulus measures, easier access to Obamacare.
More important from the campaign’s standpoint is the message he wants to send about temperament: He projects calm, steady, predictable — in short, the opposite of Trump.
In one recent appearance, Biden ticked through a list of proposals on how to implement the $2 trillion economic rescue package that Congress passed last month, including measures to expand work-sharing arrangements among furloughed workers — not exactly headline stuff.
But that was the point. To voters caught in a terrifying crisis, boring might be beautiful. It was a pandemic version of Biden’s winning message in the primaries: a return to normalcy.
He struggles to strike the right tone when he talks about Trump. He tries to do two contradictory things at once — be tough on the president, but also claim that he’s merely offering “constructive criticism.”
On Thursday, he said his advice to Trump is: “Use your full authority. This is a war. Act like a commander in chief.”
“I’m not doing this to criticize,” he added.
Even he recognizes that the balancing act doesn’t always work.
“Why doesn’t he just act like a president?” Biden demanded on MSNBC, and then had second thoughts. “That’s a stupid way to say it,” he added. “Sorry.”
In a normal election year, a presidential campaign goes into mild hibernation between the end of the primary campaign (which hasn’t quite happened) and the party conventions (which may not happen in their traditional form this year).
In a normal year, Biden would use this time to raise money, build a larger organization and set his general election strategy. He’s doing all that now — only working from home, like the rest of us.
Most voters don’t pay close attention to the presidential race until Labor Day or later. No matter what course the pandemic takes, we’ll be a different country next fall — and the conditions we face then will shape the election.
So Democrats should try to relax. There’s not much Biden can do now except hunker down in his basement and wait, like the rest of us, for the all-clear.