Joe Biden the man, on the other hand, takes up considerably less space.
“I’m locked in a basement,” he said, live-streaming into the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO’s virtual convention on a recent Tuesday from his home in Delaware. “Like a lot of you are.”
This month, Biden as much as clinched the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. It is unquestionably the biggest thing to happen in his decades-long career as a public servant, and yet, shrunken down to the size of an iPhone screen or panel in a Zoom chat, the candidate has never seemed quite so small.
“I would like to see more of him,” said Gloria Wilkins, 66, a self-described “enthusiastic” Biden supporter in Georgia. “I’ve started to wonder if [New York Gov. Andrew M.] Cuomo should run for president.”
“I think he should be more present,” said Stephanie Johnson, a social worker from outside Denver. “I think he should be getting his opinion out there more, or telling us what he would be doing, or at least saying what an idiot Trump is.”
“Huh, you know, I really haven’t seen him much,” said Denise Minton, a retired pipe fitter in Michigan. “I wonder if that’s intentional.”
It’s not, the Biden campaign says. He’s increasing his time in the friendly corners of television: going on “The View,” wearing a Phillies baseball cap on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show on what would have been Opening Day (“It’s the way to be able to sleep with my wife,” Biden said. “She’s a Philly girl”), and having an amiable back-and-forth with CNN’s Chris Cuomo (“It’s good to see you, pal,” he said). This week he chatted with Sen. Bernie Sanders on Periscope, the two calling for a unified party just one day before former president Barack Obama came off the sidelines to endorse his former wingman.
He also upped the number of “virtual town halls,” started podcasting and looked for outside-the-box opportunities to get his message out, even if that means staying in with his bookshelves, his family photos and that small desk lamp in the corner.
Maybe he has no choice but to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to be a model citizen and ace social distancer, to seek his connections with the electorate in isolation. And maybe the approach will have political benefits. It’s possible that voters will look at Biden stuck at home and see a pocket-size reflection of themselves — even though he wears a suit (including the pants, his campaign confirmed).
But then again, after a month of amateur haircuts, canceled gym memberships and questionable personal hygiene, who wants to look in a mirror right now?
The coronavirus affects the various political animals differently: Where it's caused Biden to shrink, it's pumped even more airtime into the Donald Trump show, giving the president the opportunity to vamp, contradict his scientific advisers, and pick fights with the media in front of millions of viewers who tune in to his nightly news conference-cum-campaign rally. It's even made New York Gov. Cuomo into something of a Democratic star, who, with his state a center of the pandemic, has provided his own daily briefings for a nation desperate for solid information.
“The challenge for Biden is that he doesn’t have a perch from which to do that at the moment,” said Ian Sams, a former spokesman for Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s presidential campaign. “He’s retired.”
Sure, he can roll out endorsements or release blueprints to rebuild an economy, but traditional political news can’t survive long in a pandemic. It usually dies as soon as Trump’s evening performance in the White House briefing room comes to life.
Sams is of the belief, shared by many, that politically speaking this may not matter. People already know who Biden is, and what he stands for, Sams said. Or, to put it in consultant speak:
“His brand as a candidate is already baked in,” he said. “His brand is appealing right now. His brand is competence.”
Even if his brand is Ovaltine, something marketed to older people that doesn’t really taste very good — at least it’s not a nondescript bag of dried beans in the basement. The idea of Biden has always meant a return to “normalcy,” and even if such a thing isn’t possible anymore, it’s been enough for him to vanquish his flashier Democratic rivals. So what if he stumbled at the debates (“My time’s up,” he said), or that the more time he spent in a state, the worse he seemed to do there (hello, New Hampshire and Iowa).
Biden, who has run for president three times, has always had his weaknesses as a campaigner. He’s prone to misstatements and trips over his messaging (most recently, refusing to call for Wisconsin to delay its in-person primary held in the midst of a pandemic, only to say after the fact that his “gut” told him it was a bad idea).
Perhaps all he needs to win this election is to not be Trump. The president may be getting good television ratings, but the more people hear him speak, the more they seem to disapprove of the job he’s doing. Perhaps less is more for Biden.
And so, an idea has taken hold among some in the chattering class, that the best thing Biden can do is keep a low profile so as not to tarnish the myth with reality.
“Joe Biden is stuck in his basement,” a Los Angeles Times column read. “It just might help him win.”
This school of thought, according to Lis Smith, the spokeswoman for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, is “insane.”
“What’s the lesson we learned from 2016 about sitting around and waiting for Donald Trump to self-destruct?” she said.
Now is the time, she said, to be “omnipresent.” Get Biden on popular podcasts, get him on sports shows, have him talk to Instagram influencers, or do virtual cooking shows. In the last presidential election, it could seem as if Trump controlled every news cycle — even an empty lectern awaiting his arrival seemed to get more airtime than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Even if the news was bad, he was there and never faded, in the polls or from the forefront of anyone’s mind.
“This is a time to throw caution to the wind,” Smith said, noting that the Biden team deserves credit for moving in this direction. “He’s a human guy and has the opportunity to provide a stark contrast to Donald Trump, so I say do it.”
But then again, perhaps that contrast is as clear as it needs to be. Maybe everyone has seen enough of the two to get it already.
“So much of this election is going to be about the virus and the president’s response to it,” said David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama. “I’m not sure there’s a hell of a lot Biden can do about that.”
Biden, it appears, isn’t so sure either. The old joke about senators is that when they look in the mirror, they all see presidential candidates. And yet on the precipice of clinching the nomination, Biden, the three-time candidate for president, was pining for his old desk.
“I wish I were still in the Senate,” he said late last month. “Being able to impact on some of these things.”
It's easy to feel small in the face of a crisis. No one knows that better than Biden. He's suffered more than most, losing his first wife and an infant daughter in a car crash, and a son to brain cancer. He's not a candidate who can "feel your pain," so much as the candidate who can show you how to live with it. He's always been able to make people believe they are the only ones in the room, but is it possible to transfer that feeling when he's in a room by himself?
“It’s his empathy and his compassion,” his spokeswoman Kate Bedingfeld said, listing the qualities that make him the right candidate for this moment. “As we think about campaigning now, we’re looking for moments and venues and opportunities for forging that connection with people on virtual platforms. It’s easy for him to create in real life; our challenge now is how do we create those moments online.”
So, when not getting briefings or jumping on the phone with Trump for a “good” but otherwise newsless phone call, or broadcasting an unadvertised chat at 3 p.m. on a Monday with Sen. Sanders, he spends his days making calls to supporters. He talks to people who lost family members and lost jobs, and offers to call their mothers and kids, and everyone gets the sense he really would, that his own pain is never far off.
“As a matter of fact, my son Beau’s children live a mile away as the crow flies,’’ he told Jimmy Kimmel. “They walk over through the woods and through a neighborhood, and they sit out in the backyard in two chairs, and I sit up in the porch, and we have our conversations, because I’m not allowed to go hug them. I miss it.”
That, in itself, as Americans shared Passover seders and Easter brunches with their families over videoconference apps, may be the most relatable part of the Biden campaign. Is asking any more of him asking for too much?
“This idea of him breaking through seems to be one of the more idiotic ideas going around Washington right now,” said Anita Dunn, a top adviser to Biden’s campaign. “What you do at a time like this, what Joe Biden is doing, is you put out your best ideas and best proposals, you model presidential leadership.”
And if only a few people notice? Well, hopefully they’ve already got the idea of Biden living somewhere in their heads.