March 27, 2020

Let us be frank: the bar is not high.

“Live from the Court of the Mad King!” is how the former Bush speechwriter David Frum introduces his tweets on presidential press conferences. Others are less kind. The word ‘deranged’ is used frequently by opponents. Some Americans have moved beyond political distaste. They are simply frightened by what they are witnessing: Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair spoke for many after one recent presidential performance:

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Indeed: the President, with what his own chief scientific advisors seem to regard as a reckless desire to keep the economy safe, appears willing to sign the death warrants of a large number of American citizens. This is not normal. This is — politically speaking and putting it very mildly — an opportunity for the opposition party.

Step forward, Joe Biden. Fill the space. Calm the nerves. Unite those Americans who still accept science: unite them around some basic facts. Do it fast. Do it daily. Build something of substance.

That is the challenge. As I say, a low bar to be cleared, by a man or woman of any age.

But he cannot do it. And the nation increasingly has two worries: two lacunae where previously a Reagan, an FDR, even an LBJ would have trod. Hell, Jimmy Carter could have given it a shot. Now, though, a President apparently trying to fight a virus with words faces an opponent who is struggling with an autocue.

Yes, seriously. There is a good deal of nonsense talked about Joe Biden by the more extreme elements of the Republican party. For instance: did he forget the name of Barack Obama when he mentioned him — or tried to — in a recent speech? In fact, Mr Biden has a stammer and seemed to be finding a way of getting round a phrase he was going to find difficult. It was an uncomfortable moment but well short of dementia and, for plenty of Americans, well short of the daily performance of the man actually in the Oval Office.

Fair enough.

But nothing can hide the fact that Joe Biden is struggling and struggling badly. First, he went missing. He did not appear at an hour of need. The famous and hugely repeated Sunday morning political shows would all have had him on at the beginning of the week but he appeared nowhere. #whereisjoe started trending on Twitter. So he announced an address to the nation. “Biden seeks to offer a possible presidency preview,” is how ABC News, ever hopeful, trailed the 15 minute address streamed from his home in Delaware.

It was painful to watch. They had assembled a lectern with a BIDEN sign, as if he were on the campaign trail in Boise. It was ill-lit. At one point he said:

“And uh, in addition to that, in addition to that, we have to make sure that we, uh, are in a position, that we are, we. Let me go to the second thing.”

As he was saying those words he was motioning with a hand — flapping it, apparently to suggest that the teleprompter had broken. It was amateurish. It was, given the ease of the task, jaw dropping that the former Vice President and his team could not have managed better.

But even when he’s responding to questions, Mr Biden often seems at sea. A round of patsy interviews with friendly interviewers yielded little in the way of firmer grip. At one stage in a CNN spot, Mr Biden coughed into his hand. The interviewer had to remind him that was no longer done.

As they say in top level sport: get the basics right.

What on earth are the Democrats going to do?

First: not panic.

The reasoning here: it is genuinely difficult for the Biden team to break through because their man holds no elected office and thus no obvious platform — and he cannot hold mass rallies because of the risk from the coronavirus, hence the basement teleprompter. He is not even the nominee: Bernie Sanders is still in the race, though he cannot win.

Also: yes, there was a poll suggesting that 60% of Americans backed Mr Trump’s handling of the crisis and yes, that does seem quite a thing. But as the veteran pollster Stan Greenberg pointed out, the “fatalistic chatter” in the wake of the poll was well wide off the mark. In fact, in swing states that Biden must win in November, he is well ahead. He is on course to install his wonky teleprompter in the White House.

Second, though: panic.

The crisis has exposed, for many Democrats, the horrible deficiencies of the contest they have just held. Mr Biden is no Obama. His only genuinely enthusiastic supporters tend to be black voters in the south, many of whom like him because he took instructions — gladly and faithfully — from a black man. But is that enough?

He says he will appoint a woman as his vice presidential pick. But why? Possession of a vagina might have seemed vital in the far-off days when identity politics were a thing and coronavirus mentioned at the end of the news. But now? How about possession of a medical qualification? Or a proven ability to run something. There are women who fit the bill of course, but they made no headway during the campaign. This person needs to be ready to run the country: how odd for a centrist to limit the choice to make a woke point that no longer needs making.

And Mr Biden himself? He has never in his life run anything. Not a town. Not a state. Not even a collapsing and obscurely leveraged casino chain. And here some panicky Democrats are shifting their gaze to the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has become the anti-Trump star of the coronavirus outbreak with a constant daily outpouring of executive decisions and an equally high-profile string of barbs aimed at the White House.

Some Democrats are swooning. Could Mr Cuomo not be drafted in at the last minute? “America’s Governor” in the same way Rudy Giuliani became (briefly) “America’s mayor.” His father Mario was the great hope who never actually ran for president. Might history come calling on the Cuomos?

I doubt it. The practicalities are too tricky. But the very fact that the question is being asked is a measure of how uncharted these waters really are.

There is another worry for the Democrats’ panicky brigade. What if the President is just a little bit right? Right enough to harvest a political boost just as the autumn comes?

Frankly it does not seem likely. But this is a president entirely comfortable with spending borrowed money. This is a president entirely at ease with unorthodoxy. A healthcare election might force Trump (finally) to come up with the healthcare reforms he promised before 2016.

And before that? Well, this is a president who in some respects is voicing the worries of millions of Americans for whom the crisis seems still distant.

America is a huge nation. But also — because of its size — a small one. Many Americans live isolated lives, particularly Republicans who inhabit the great rural expanses rather than the big cities. A catastrophe in New York is an event on the news, little more. Put crudely: this pandemic is affecting urban Democrats more than rural Republicans.

America is also — sad to say — a nation in which reported facts are distrusted to an unnerving extent, with consequences that are not always predictable. An example from my life: a good friend was coming to London from San Francisco recently and asked if we might meet.

“Coronavirus?,” I emailed. “Are you really coming?”

His response: “we can have a good discussion about Media Induced Hysteria.”

Here is the point: he is a Democrat. A Left-wing Democrat. And one of the cleverest people I know. I assume he saw the coronavirus reporting on the media he watches and reads, but did not believe it because he knows that the reporters (like him) cannot stand Trump. The media landscape in the US today is Putin-like: flooded with nonsense nobody believes to the extent that even reliable reports are discounted. There is no impartiality. No truth.

Into this world, a strong communicator with a steely focus on healthcare and a bag full of ideas could make quite a splash. Is Joe Biden that person? It may not matter. A disaster might be about to engulf America.

But if disaster is averted, the Democrats could be left with a broken teleprompter in a Delaware basement as the metaphor for this presidential campaign, and the world will be open-mouthed at the mess they have made of finding a treatment for Donald Trump.