The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

His campaigning limited, Joe Biden sketches out his would-be administration

Joe Biden gives a virtual press briefing on March 25. The coronavirus pandemic has limited the Democratic candidate’s airtime and opportunities for campaigning. (Biden for President/AP)

Joe Biden has committed to choosing a woman as his running mate. He’s vowed to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court. And now, he’s toying with the idea of creating new Cabinet posts and possibly even naming potential agency secretaries before the election.

The presumptive Democratic nominee is sketching out an increasingly detailed portrait of the kinds of people he would surround himself with if he became president. At a moment when the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the country’s faith in government and frequently rendered Biden’s candidacy a lonely pursuit, his campaign is emphasizing what would happen after the election — were he to win — more so than what he will do in the nearly seven months of campaigning before the November vote.

He is also making his pitch as much about his allies as about him, presenting himself as the conductor of an orchestra whose individual players might appeal to the disparate elements of a party Biden is seeking to unify.

His moves reflect a campaign trying to project know-how and preparedness, qualities it hopes will contrast in the minds of many voters with President Trump, whom Biden is casting as chaotic and woefully unreliable in moments of crisis.

Voters “need reassurance delivered in specific information,” said Henry Muñoz, a former Democratic National Committee finance chairman and an informal Biden adviser. “The best form of leadership is a person who is willing to surround themselves with diverse, strong voices.”

The strategy is also driven by the practical problem of mounting a campaign in the era of the coronavirus. When the former vice president hits the trail these days, it means beaming into people’s living rooms from his makeshift basement TV studio, piping into their headphones with his new podcast and schmoozing with donors on Zoom, all from a safe social distance that has isolated him from the country he wants to lead.

Some Democrats worry about Biden being eclipsed by Trump, whose White House pandemic briefings are carried live and whose hourly battles with political rivals have been splashed across newspaper front pages.

Biden’s slow rollout of a growing army of high-wattage surrogates offers the potential, at least, of breaking through the din.

“It’s difficult because he’s not a public official now, and he’s in this period of time when he’s a candidate when we’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), a close Biden ally who said the “physical limitations” of campaigning from home also present a challenge.

Biden, speaking at a virtual fundraiser, said Thursday that he has started constructing a presidential transition team, a process he said has been underway for several weeks.

Discussions are in progress about the prospect of elevating some White House offices to Cabinet-level positions, Biden said. Among those under consideration: the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the global health security pandemic office and a separate climate change operation that “goes beyond the EPA,” he said.

Biden said he “would consider announcing some Cabinet members before the election,” a move that would be highly unusual, but he clarified that he hasn’t “made that commitment” yet. Still, he signaled that he has a good idea of who would fill the positions.

“If the Lord Almighty said: ‘Joe, I tell you what. You have to decide in three hours what your Cabinet is or you’re going to be bounced out of the race,’ I could write down who could be in the Cabinet,” he said. “There are at least two or three people qualified for every one of those positions.”

In contrast with the vision of firm leadership that the former vice president is seeking to put forward, Trump and his allies are casting Biden as shaky and unprepared, and calling attention to his verbal stumbles. “No more late night television Sleepy Joe!” the Trump campaign tweeted this week, with a clip of Biden appearing to look down at his notes during a long-winded comment on CNN.

Many Democrats recognize that Biden’s status as a 77-year-old white man at the head of a diverse party has made the question of whom he will pick for his administration more significant, and his running mate choice more consequential. Some say they want to see evidence that Biden would put together a government that reflects the country.

Biden has been offering hints about who would serve in his government for months. At the final debate of the primary race in mid-March, he said he would choose a woman as his running mate, setting off a spirited discussion in the party over whom he ought to select.

The declaration focused media attention on several women seen as potential picks, including Democratic Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.); Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; and former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, among others.

Even that discussion, however, has received little public attention. Some Democrats from competitive swing areas have said Biden needs to find a fresh way to stand out against Trump in the weeks ahead.

“The president is on TV every day. He’s coming to us into our TV screens every day from his press conference,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said in an interview last week. “So it’s going to be important for the [former] vice president to be visible and to use this time in key states like Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, to really rethink creatively what a campaign looks like in an era of social distancing.”

Trump had a head start in his outreach, although his pitches have been aimed more at reminding supporters of their affection than at seeking out new acolytes. Every time the president tweets — such as on Friday, when he used misleading information to call President Barack Obama and Biden “a disaster” in their 2009 response to the H1N1 influenza — his message goes to more than 77 million Twitter followers. Biden has just under 5 million followers.

The Fix’s Eugene Scott breaks down the significance of three key endorsements former vice president Joe Biden received and how they could impact the election. (Video: The Washington Post)

Over the past several days, Biden has made this most of his circumstances. He won the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Monday, joining his former rival in a live-streamed discussion that conveyed a warmer relationship between the two men than Sanders ever had with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The next day, Obama bestowed his support on Biden, and the day after that Warren endorsed him. The campaign rounded out the week with endorsements from leading Muslim and Jewish organizations, highlighting the diversity in his coalition.

The new alliances are expected to pay off in multiple ways: On May 1, a network of influential Obama alumni is planning to participate in a virtual fundraiser for Biden, according to a person with knowledge of the event. Ticket prices will range from $250 to $2,800.

But the credibility transfer from his endorsers to Biden has limits. That is why the candidate, seen in some quarters of the party as unappealing to younger voters and facing challenges with Latino voters, also has been willing to make pronouncements that have gone beyond what past nominees have guaranteed.

“I’m looking forward to making sure there is a black woman on the Supreme Court,” Biden said at a February debate, drawing loud applause.

The creation of his Cabinet — and more broadly his view of himself as a transitional figure who can help build the next generation of Democrats — has been on Biden’s mind for a while. During an April 3 virtual fundraiser, he said he was committed to selecting diverse personnel.

“Men, women, gay, straight, center, across the board. Black, white, Asian. It really matters that you look like the country, because everyone brings a slightly different perspective,” said Biden.

Presidents-elect typically tap experienced government hands to help them evolve from candidate to officeholder. Cabinet nominations — such as secretary of state and attorney general — are normally announced beginning in the two-month period between the election and the inauguration.

Biden would not say who is heading his transition team, but he vowed that those who will take part will be “first rate.” He also argued that there is no shortage of qualified people who could serve.

“I have had literally several hundred serious, serious players who have held positions in every department in the federal government who have said, including some Republicans, who have said: ‘If you win, I want to come back. I’m ready to serve,’ ” he said.

The words sought to offer a measure of clarity at a time when there is little certainty about the future of the country’s economy, its health and its mind-set. By Biden’s own estimation, the election itself is not even set in stone.

Biden said at the Thursday fundraiser that the recent Wisconsin primary led him to question how efficiently states can hold elections during the coronavirus crisis, particularly as Trump and other Republicans have fought a transition to mail-in ballots. When asked whether he believes the public can trust that the November election will be held as expected, Biden replied, “Right now they can’t trust that.”

Matt Viser contributed to this report.