Let’s drop all pretenses, shall we? The president has decided he’s had enough of running the country and is running full time for re-election instead.
One could argue that this has been Donald Trump’s approach from the start — the last three years of shriek-tweeting, Fox-bingeing, and stadium rallies have had little to do with governance — but it’s much more obvious now that we’re in the midst of a global emergency. The moment Trump declared that it was up to the states to decide when to reopen — and to scale up their own coronavirus testing, and to scale up their antibody testing, and to get their own personal protective equipment — he was implicitly saying, I’m out.
It’s important to make this distinction. Trump’s nightly news conferences, propaganda from the very beginning, are now aimed almost entirely at his base. They are campaign events. And if they are campaign events, the cable news outlets, which still carry the bulk of them live, ought to balance their programming. They ought to check in with the Joe Biden camp before, during and after each one.
There ought to be an army of Biden surrogates waiting to speak. Biden himself ought to be ready to speak: about reopening society in a rational, sane way that involves population-level testing and risk stratification, never forgetting to remind everyone we’re here because Trump ignored reality. Biden ought to be hosting live, regular conversations with his brain trust, past and future. He should be holding press briefings modeled on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s: facts followed by next steps followed by testimony from experts followed by a response to Washington followed by a heartfelt articulation of people’s feelings, all rendered in PowerPoint haiku.
Biden would be especially good at that last bit. He, too, is an emotional seismograph. He has a cruel and unwelcome body of expertise in coping with grief, having lost his first wife and 13-month-old daughter to a car accident in 1972, just weeks after his first Senate victory, and then losing his oldest son, Beau, to a brain tumor 43 years later. One of the ways he’s learned to endure, over the years, is by reaching out to others in times of mourning. He’s handed out his personal cellphone number to countless grieving strangers. (He had to stop himself from blurting it on television when he spoke to Anderson Cooper last month.)
It would be harder to make the case for equal time for Biden if Trump were busy telling us what he’s doing during these Potemkin pressers. But he’s repeatedly telling us what he’s not doing, because he’s apparently responsible for nothing. What he’s doing instead is running campaign ads, in the form of … actual campaign ads, including a four-minute, onanistic montage of self tribute, deceitfully argued and insipidly scored with violins.
And the president now often uses his news briefings to go off-roading, discussing not the coronavirus but the old 2016 standards: Muslims are suspect; immigrants are a menace; Obama was a disaster; the media’s a pack of liars; Christians are “treated very unfairly.” He’s not even bothering with a dog whistle. He’s lunged straight for the brass horn.
Trump is so dominant on social media that these briefings get over 1 million views per evening on his Facebook page alone. Those numbers show no sign of declining. According to Axios, Trump has drummed up 15 times as many followers on social media as Joe Biden; he draws six times as much web traffic; and he gets three times as many cable news mentions. Trump also has a far larger war chest, and he’s already spending it, lavishly.
Having a financial edge matters — but it may matter less in a pandemic than it does in ordinary times. Live virtual events cost practically nothing compared with hopscotching around the country with a giant staff on a campaign plane. “There’s a good chance this campaign could play to Biden’s strengths: a sense of competence, calmness and empathy," Stuart Stevens, a longtime political consultant and former Republican, told me. “People don’t demand a solution. They demand some appreciation for what they’re going through.”
Biden’s media appearances thus far have been intermittent and a little lackluster, and only on Tuesday did he send a coordinated memo to his surrogates outlining how they should respond to Trump’s disastrous handling of a historic crisis. During a coronavirus town hall with Anderson Cooper a few nights ago, his speech grew halting at one moment, and he had to consult his notes; the right pounced on it.
But watching his full appearance, you see, more or less, the same man who’s been handily winning state primaries this winter and spring: occasionally scattered, yes, but also diligent and empathetic and sufficiently well adjusted to heed the advice of experts. He could yet find the right format for himself during this peculiar time.
“All Biden has to do is say, ‘This could be better,’” Stevens noted. “Whereas Trump is in the business of convincing you that you’re lucky you’re not dead yet.”
Jennifer Senior is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.