It can no longer be said that Joe Biden is missing in action. Over the course of the last week, the Biden campaign, sensitive to criticism from progressives and bafflement from political reporters, has stepped up the candidate’s media appearances in order to counter President Donald Trump’s elevated visibility amid the coronavirus crisis. On Sunday, Biden made a virtual stop on Meet the Press, where host Chuck Todd controversially asked him whether Trump had “blood on his hands” given the administration’s bungling of the coronavirus response so far. “I think that’s a little too harsh,” he replied. “I watched a prelim to your show where someone used the phrase that the president thinks out loud. He should stop thinking out loud and start thinking deeply.”
This prompted criticism from progressives who argued, correctly, that Trump’s misinformation and maladministration of the crisis have very likely cost lives already and put the country on the path toward a staggering number of casualties before a vaccine can be made widely available. In a Friday piece for Politico, Ryan Lizza quoted an outside Biden adviser who seemed to offer a reason for his reticence. “Biden has a thin line,” he told Lizza. “As much as I dislike Trump and think what a bad job he’s doing, there’s a danger now that attacking him can backfire on you if you get too far out there. I don’t think the public wants to hear criticism of Trump right now.”
What we know about how the public views the Trump administration at the moment isn’t great for Biden and Democrats. But that’s all the more reason for Biden to lean harder into his critiques of the president, in keeping with the rhetorical approach he took earlier in the primaries.
Not long ago, the conventional wisdom among pundits was that the Democratic primary had been derailed by policy discussions and criticism of the Obama administration, instead of forceful criticism of Donald Trump. In a representative bit of commentary, NBC analyst Jonathan Allen went as far as calling Trump the winner of last June’s Democratic primary debate. “For long stretches, it seemed, they completely forgot about the man who has been at the center of pretty much every discussion among Democrats for the last two-plus years—the man they’re competing to take on next year,” he said. “The obvious reason: The motivation to beat each other was, on this night, more urgent than defeating Trump—a life-or-death moment for some of their campaigns.”
One of the most vociferous proponents of this view was, of course, Joe Biden, who began his campaign stridently linking Trump to white supremacy and the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. And although he’s offered meaningful and substantive jabs at the administration’s management of the coronavirus crisis, the approach Biden has taken against Trump in recent weeks—in the middle of one of what may well be Trump’s deadliest and most consequential failures—represents a noticeable shift away from high rhetoric about “the soul of the nation” toward constructive feedback. “I have not been criticizing the president,” he said on The View last week. “But I’ve been pointing out where there is disagreement on how to proceed.”
The comments from the Biden adviser who spoke to Lizza suggests that shift has been animated by a wariness of falling on the wrong side of what’s often called a “rally around the flag effect”—the tendency for voters to support leaders, or at least give them the benefit of the doubt, in times of crisis. Polls do suggest this is happening for Trump. Gallup’s latest figures show Trump at a 49 percent approval rating, a tie with the highest ratings he’s reached over the course of his presidency. And multiple polls also show a majority of voters specifically approve of the way he has handled the coronavirus crisis.
But there are important caveats here that should inform the Biden campaign’s strategy. Although Trump’s approval rating has spiked, that increase has been far smaller than the boost other world leaders dealing with the crisis have enjoyed, a reminder that Trump remains a deeply polarizing figure with a firm ceiling in public support. Additionally, the number of Americans who approve of the administration’s handling of the virus is being elevated by Democrats. In a Monmouth poll released last week, for instance, almost 20 percent of Democrats believed Trump has done a good job, thus far, at managing the crisis. It’s entirely possible, likely even, that Trump’s numbers will deflate as the national situation worsens. But Biden gains little by pulling punches now. Voters might be more likely to think Trump is doing a good job if they are told by the press that other voters believe this to be true. Biden can diminish that risk by being more aggressive in his characterizations of the consequences of Trump’s poor leadership and getting voters within the party he now functionally leads in line on the matter.
This might also bolster enthusiasm within the party for his campaign. One of the remarkable things about Biden’s candidacy is that while he’s been chosen by Democratic voters because beating Trump is a high priority for most, relatively few Democratic voters seem particularly excited about watching him do so. That won’t change if Biden is offering Trump more prescriptions than broadsides. As for the risk that Biden might alienate Trump supporters he’d like to win over with his criticisms, the deeper risk is that Biden fails to condemn Trump strongly enough for those voters to perceive a real reason to abandon him. The kind of authority Biden is trying to project isn’t necessarily the kind of authority they’re likely to respect—they chose Trump over a candidate offering the impression of measured competence in 2016, and they may well do so again in November.
In any case, Trump is deeply vulnerable now. But the Biden campaign will not prevail unless that vulnerability is actually exploited. If Biden isn’t going to offer a bold vision for America’s future beyond this crisis, he could at least fulfill the promise his campaign made to the Democratic electorate—that this election would be a real fight, and one Biden could win.