The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden pitches himself as the ‘been there, done that’ candidate as economic and health crises dominate the presidential race

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks to supporters at Drake University in Des Moines while they await results from the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The deadly Ebola virus was spreading through West Africa, and top Obama administration officials were increasingly alarmed about Nigeria, the most populous nation in the continent. They needed the country to take action, and Joe Biden was tapped to deliver the message.

A few hours before an elaborate White House dinner for African leaders, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, was summoned to a meeting in Biden’s office in the West Wing. When the door closed, the vice president unleashed a string of warnings so forceful that it shocked those around him.

“He really pressed him and pressured him to ramp up Nigeria’s efforts. I remember us all being surprised,” said Lisa Monaco, a top homeland security adviser to President Barack Obama who at the time was helping manage the Ebola response.

The episode showcased Biden in a role he often played in the Obama administration, acting as a political Swiss Army knife brought out for specific jobs at certain moments of crisis. From the administration’s opening days, he used relationships built up over decades in Washington to help blunt the impact of health crises, including Ebola, and push through a stimulus package to lift the country out of the worst economic collapse since the Depression.

With the country again seized by a global health epidemic and economic turmoil, Biden is leaning on this record as voters determine whom they can best trust in a crisis, a judgment both Democrats and Republicans believe will be at the forefront of voters’ minds in November. As President Trump tries to portray the former vice president as a bumbling bureaucrat, Biden is touting his experience — and the Obama administration’s approach to handling crisis — and directly contrasting it with the response to the novel coronavirus by Trump and his federal team.

Trump and his supporters have dismissed the notion of Biden as a competent crisis manager, pointing to everything from shortages in the federal government stockpile that emerged after the Obama administration to Biden incorrectly referring to the H1N1 virus as N1H1.

“Biden was a joke,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, citing several past stumbles. “Today he ineffectively snipes from the sidelines, offering suggestions for things President Trump is already doing, and desperately looking for relevance where there is none.”

Highlighting Biden’s support for trade policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Murtaugh added, “The idea that he can handle an economic crisis is laughable.”

A review of the eight years Biden spent in the Obama administration, and interviews with nearly a dozen of those involved, showed that in moments of crisis Biden was relentless and enmeshed in the details. He could be sober and empathetic, but also prone to verbal miscues that other officials had to quickly clarify. He was less the originator of policies than the hammer to drive them into being.

The cauldron of those crises formed Biden’s outlook on the current ones. Biden says he begins each day talking with his teams of health and economic advisers and keeps in touch with House and Senate leaders and mayors and governors around the country. (He also spoke recently with Trump to offer suggestions for handling the coronavirus; they agreed to keep most details of the conversation private, but both called it cordial.)

He has outlined an economic proposal to pump federal money into the economy — as the Obama administration did — and set up a presidential task force to oversee its implementation. He has called for legislation to forgive at least $10,000 per person of federal student loans, increase Social Security checks by $200 per month, and ensure no American pays out of pocket for medical care related to the coronavirus.

Biden has also been pressing for more testing for the coronavirus. He has criticized Trump for not taking action sooner to stop the spread of the virus and for not heeding early warnings to prevent it from spreading here.

More than anything, Biden is offering himself as the antithesis to Trump, a candidate who as president would delve into the details, defer to the experts and wrestle the full weight of the government to pursue his goals.

Economic collapse

As a snowstorm raged in Chicago in late 2008, the future president and vice president met with their economic team to figure out what to do about a plummeting economy. The two men had what one person in the room described as “FDR envy.” They were pushing for signature programs and projects, like the Works Progress Administration or the Tennessee Valley Authority, that would be remembered half a century later as are those of Franklin Roosevelt.

In many cases, they couldn’t identify signature projects, and with job figures plummeting they knew they had to come up with something fast. They decided to turn on the federal money spigot and let it flow as quickly as possible through stimulus spending. Some of it would go to states, others in the form of individual tax breaks.

Biden’s primary role became selling it to his former Senate colleagues, trying to convince them to approve what became a $787 billion spending package known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Joe Biden, steady hand, working across the aisle, listening to people — he helped divert a depression, there’s no question in my mind that that is the case,” said former senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a deficit hawk, who at the time was chairman of the Budget Committee.

“Now, in every detail was he right? No, nobody’s going to be right in every part of a trillion-dollar package,” Conrad added. “Did he, by his actions, help to divert a depression? Absolutely.”

To win passage, the administration needed the votes of several Republicans. Biden targeted a half-dozen whom he called and cajoled, urging them to stand with him in a moment of crisis.

Among them was Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, an old friend who used to ride Amtrak with Biden back to their respective hometowns. Late one night in the days before the legislation would come to a vote, Biden called Specter’s office and couldn’t reach him. Minutes later, Specter’s chief of staff Scott Hoeflich got a call on his cellphone from the White House switchboard.

“Scott, this is Joe,” Biden said. “Where’s Arlen?”

Hoeflich assured him they were trying to track the senator down. Shortly after, Biden called Hoeflich’s cellphone again, asking for a status update. Biden also called Specter’s home in Philadelphia and spoke with the senator’s wife, who said her husband was sleeping. Eventually the two connected the next morning.

“He was relentless,” Hoeflich said. “He was all over everything and everyone — in a positive way — super hands-on, super in the weeds.”

Specter was getting enormous pressure to oppose the legislation, with Republicans worried about the cost. Biden kept emphasizing how important the legislation was to the country, and to the president. He also suggested that Specter would not face any opposition in his reelection bid the following year.

In the end, Biden helped convince three Republicans to vote for the legislation, among them Specter. The senator would soon switch to the Democratic Party, and in 2010 lose the seat he’d held for 30 years. He died in 2012.

“It did cost us politically,” Hoeflich said.

It also became a seminal moment for how Obama viewed Biden, according to people close to both men. The first few weeks of their partnership had been bumpy — when Biden attempted a joke about Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. mixing up words in the oath of office, an irked Obama stood stone-faced — but Biden’s efforts on the spending package had proved his value.

After the bill’s passage, Biden oversaw its implementation, keeping tabs on projects large and small around the country to rebuild roads and bridges, and install new train lines.

“There’s a theme that runs through all of this,” said Jared Bernstein, who was Biden’s chief economic adviser at the time. “He strongly believes in the importance of competent governance — to the level you’d expect to see from a retail politician.”

Biden would call small-town mayors to check in, and he expressed an interest in details like the health of the trees that were being planted.

“He likes this word ‘granular.’ He uses that word a lot, then and now,” Bernstein said. “He likes a tangible feel of what’s going on. If I would tell him, ‘We need a stimulus that’s 4 percent of GDP,’ he’d get it. But that’s not what got him out of bed in the morning.”

It was, Bernstein said, “the kind of moment that the federal government could either shine or fail. And he wanted it to shine.”

Yet the measure he helped to push through also ignited new political movements — some on the right, who were frustrated with the growing size of government, and others on the left, who felt that it failed to punish Wall Street and overlooked the middle class.

“The response to the crisis was a . . . disaster, that’s the basic problem. It was a nightmare,” said Matthew Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute and the author of “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.” “The reality is the response, the lack of prosecutions, the concentration of wealth, the amnesty for white-collar criminals — it led directly to the kind of [animus] that got Trump elected.”

An ill-advised warning

In the midst of trying to sell the recovery act package, the administration was also trying to figure out how to handle the H1N1 influenza virus, also known as the swine flu. The first U.S. case was detected in April 2009, and over the next year the pandemic would kill nearly 12,500 Americans and up to 575,000 worldwide, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Trump has recently claimed that Biden “was in charge of the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic which killed thousands of people.”

But Biden was not in charge or deeply involved at all, according to former Obama administration officials, because he was focused on the economic recovery. He went to meetings where the topic was discussed but was not involved beyond that.

Still, he did have an impact early on in the response, with comments that caused the White House to scramble. Obama had warned Americans who are sick to avoid traveling in confined spaces. Biden went further.

“I would tell members of my family — and I have — I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now. It’s not that it’s going to Mexico, it’s [that] you’re in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft,” Biden said on NBC’s “Today” show.

“That’s me,” he said. “I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway.”

Biden’s comments were not in line with what health experts were warning. They triggered frustrated responses from the still-struggling travel industry, which urged Americans to listen to medical professionals rather than politicians.

“To suggest that people not fly at this stage of things is a broad-brush stroke bordering on fear-mongering,” American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith told the Associated Press.

Biden’s office tried to clarify that he was only warning sick people not to travel, but other administration and Cabinet officials were brought out to reassure travelers.

“If anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said during a White House briefing.

'Ignoring politics and letting science dictate'

If only tangentially involved in the H1N1 fight, Biden did have a more pivotal role several years later when cases of lethal Ebola began spreading. As advisers briefed Obama, Biden and others, the administration began identifying major impediments to a global response and rallying the world to address it — the sort of approach that Biden, six years later, would criticize Trump for abandoning.

“We’re talking today about flatting the curve,” Monaco said. “It was a similar thing in West Africa. . . . We really needed to slow the acceleration of the cases we were identifying.”

When the African leaders arrived at the White House for a prearranged conference, top administration officials set up meetings between several delegations and Biden. They wanted him to be the one to confront the Nigerian president over his lack of response, and they wanted it to be done in an intimate setting, so the message could be relayed clearly without embarrassing the foreign leader.

“The very direct message was the government needed to be pushed to do more with its detection and surveillance,” said Grant Harris, who was Obama’s principal adviser on issues related to Africa. “It couldn’t wait or risk being complacent or put too much strategy in hope.”

It was a message that Biden often would be called upon to deliver, this time a few hours before a White House dinner of dry-aged beef, plantains and coconut milk.

“Biden has a unique talent with foreign leaders,” said Colin Kahl, who was Biden’s national security adviser during part of the Ebola response and who now teaches at Stanford. “He establishes relationships of trust. He can be their friend and have a smile on his face while jabbing them in the chest to urge action on things. It’s a hard trick to pull off.”

Then as now, there were calls for a travel ban. But this time — unlike with swine flu — Biden was pushing against one.

“There was a real pushback from science and public health experts that that would be really counterproductive,” Monaco said. “It would discourage public health workers who we needed to go there. If they couldn’t get back, how would you get anyone to go?”

“There was a period where there was a lot of fear, a lot of panic,” she added. “As things got tense in terms of discussion and political pressure about having a travel ban, he was a very strong voice on ignoring politics and letting science dictate what our plans should be.”

The administration set up a task force that was led by Ron Klain, who was Biden’s former chief of staff. Nearly 3,000 U.S. troops were sent to Africa to help stop the spread, and Congress approved $5.4 billion in emergency funding for Ebola treatment.

And early on, the State Department transported two health workers — who had contracted the virus while working with patients in Monrovia, Liberia — to Emory University in Atlanta.

The decision attracted the attention of a New York businessman.

“Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days - now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent,” Donald Trump wrote in the first of more than 100 tweets about Ebola. “KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!”

“The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back,” he wrote the next day. “People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!”

It was a few days later when Biden met with Jonathan, the Nigerian president, to pressure him to take more action.

Three days after that meeting, the Nigerian president declared a national state of emergency. And over the next two weeks, the country built an Ebola Treatment Unit, trained 2,300 health staff, performed 19,000 home visits and screened 150,000 travelers at airports.

“This is how it should be: swift, effective and comprehensive action in defense of citizens,” Jonathan said that October in a national address to hail the country’s curtailing of the disease.

The outbreak raged throughout portions of West Africa for two years, killing more than 11,300. In Nigeria, there was a minimal death toll: eight.