Biden has made no secret of his own thinking on the matter. “The more that Donald Trump is out the worse he does. I think it is wonderful that he goes out,” Biden joked Saturday at a virtual event for Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. “I’m being a bit facetious because it is dangerous what he is doing at his rallies. But look at it: His numbers have dropped through the floor.”
The result is an odd moment in presidential politics, when the typical campaign physics appear to have been reversed. The candidate with better television ratings, the bigger campaign apparatus and a larger megaphone is watching his approval fall while the candidate fewer Americans hear from or see has been expanding his lead in head-to-head national polls. Less is more, for the moment at least.
Trump strategists have responded by all but pleading with Biden to do more and implying his muted schedule is nefarious. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has demanded that cable networks cover Biden events in full, and campaign Facebook ads captioned “Why has Biden vanished?” have been added to a negative advertising rotation. Trump allies regularly send out updates of the number of days that have passed since Biden’s last news conference on April 2.
“The American people deserve a situation where candidates for president undergo the scrutiny and vetting to judge fitness for being president of the United States,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. “Joe Biden is purposefully avoiding that, and his handlers know he can’t stand up to the scrutiny.”
Biden finally acceded to taking questions from the media Tuesday, after delivering a speech that attacked Trump for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “I am going to follow the doctor’s orders, not only for me but for the country,” Biden said of his decision to pare back his campaign. “You know me. I’d much rather be out there with people, because that’s where I get the greatest feel.”
There is little Republicans can do to force Biden more into the open, as even Trump has publicly acknowledged the benefits to Biden of his campaign’s strategy. “He’s been in the basement for a long time,” Trump said in a Fox News interview in mid June. “I think he has really been run beautifully.”
Trump, meanwhile, has shown little interest in changing his approach. Efforts by advisers and allies to have him stick to a more positive reelection pitch, anchored in a focus on healing the country and winning over swing voters, have failed, with the exception of a few one-off events on topics such as helping seniors or announcing federal police reforms.
Both former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Trump confidant, and former White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney have recently said in interviews that Trump is mishandling the moment in a way that rewards Biden, giving the Democrat little incentive to engage more aggressively on the campaign.
“Folks are voicing their displeasure with the way the president has handled covid and the Black Lives Matter riots and uprisings of the last couple of weeks,” Mulvaney said on Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade’s radio show Monday. “No one has benefited more from the coronavirus crisis than Joe Biden.”
Instead, Trump has fixed on a frenetic strategy of tweets, events and interviews meant to excite his core base of supporters, a group distinctly short of an electoral majority in public polls. In June, the president has held 21 interviews with specific news organizations, according to White House records, while taking questions from White House reporters at least six additional times. Biden, by contrast, granted only five interviews so far this month, according to his campaign, and until Tuesday had not taken any on-the-record questions from reporters assigned to cover him.
The contrast extends to their public travel. Between June 20 and 29, Trump logged about 4,000 miles on Air Force One to hold events in three states, including two rallies that attracted thousands of people. Biden held two remote local television interviews and a couple of virtual events and took a one-hour drive from his home to the courtyard of a Lancaster, Pa., recreation center, where he met with five citizens to talk about health care before giving a speech on the topic that received scant national attention.
“I have gone out responsibly,” Biden said about his travel schedule on Saturday. “And when I go out I wear this mask and keep social distancing.”
Biden’s advisers say they feel no urgency to force the former vice president into a more rigorous schedule, and the pandemic has given him cover to be the most under-the-radar presidential campaign presence in memory. The advisers believe that Trump’s current dominance of the news cycle has helped underscore their central argument.
“The president is out there counseling people not to worry about masks, not to worry about social distancing, even as the amount of cases begin to spike in this country,” Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn said. “We think that competing for crowd size at a time when the government’s own public health officials say not to have crowds is exactly what is wrong with this president.”
Biden’s deliberate pace eases worries among Democrats who have privately expressed concerns about his ability to perform after a primary season marked by uneven and gaffe-prone performances. Allies such as former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe have argued that the contrast of a disciplined Biden operating from his basement will play well against a more voluble Trump exposing his supporters to health risks.
“He’s fine in the basement,” McAuliffe said several weeks ago to a virtual meeting of Virginia Democrats. “Let Trump keep doing what Trump’s doing.”
The inability to gain ground despite his more aggressive campaign posture has forced Trump to reconsider his “sleepy” nickname for Biden, which several Republicans have argued plays to Biden’s advantage, by casting him as a less excitable leader at a time of national crisis. In recent days, Trump has taken to calling Biden “corrupt” instead.
“ ‘Sleepy’ is backfiring and hurting Donald Trump,” said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who worked for President George W. Bush. “I think the Biden people look at Joe Biden as a cough drop who is soothing. They are going to keep Biden on the shelf until you need him. ‘Sleepy’ connotes calm. It connotes quiet.”
At the core of Republican concern is a long-running dilemma for incumbent presidents seeking reelection. The races, left to themselves, tend to be referendums on the occupant of the Oval Office, a dangerous place for Trump in the current economic and political environment. President Barack Obama’s advisers, who faced milder head winds in 2012, focused his reelection efforts on shifting the debate from his record to demonizing the past business practices of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as a way of framing the next four years.
Bush, in his 2004 reelection bid, was able to turn the focus to his Democratic opponent John F. Kerry on both economic and national security fronts. Joel Benenson, a pollster for both Obama and Hillary Clinton, said Trump has not been as nimble in his approach to reelection.
“If you think about George W. Bush against Kerry and President Obama against Romney, they were both very skilled politicians and each of them had enough introspection to know when they needed to repair damage and to do it,” Benenson said. “Trump is completely lacking in reparative skills.”
Trump has also struggled to address the question of how he would make the country better if given another four years in office. His stump speech focuses on warning of civil unrest and economic disaster if Democrats lead the country. He also promises another economic revival in his second term and the appointment of more conservative judges.
But when he was asked last week by Fox News host Sean Hannity what his priorities would be if he won reelection, the president delivered a rambling answer about his political outsider credentials and his anger at his former national security adviser John Bolton.
“One of the things that will be really great — the word experience is still good, I always say talent is more important than experience, I’ve always said that — but the word experience is a very important word, a very important meaning,” said Trump, who has decried Biden’s political longevity as a negative.
In prior months, the Trump campaign has proved adept at jumping on and magnifying similar slip-ups and malapropisms by Biden. The campaign started selling a T-shirt printed with the phrase “#YouAintBlack,” referring to a phrase Biden used to describe African Americans who did not support him. Biden apologized for the comment shortly after he made it.
But Biden’s missteps have decreased as his public appearances have become more controlled. He has done less than a quarter as many interviews in June as the 22 he did in May, according to campaign statistics.
The Biden campaign was slow to react on Sunday, when Trump retweeted a video of a supporter shouting “White power” after being taunted by a protester calling him a racist. Trump described the video as showing “great people.”
Six hours passed before the Biden campaign responded with a condemning tweet. By then, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) had already asked for it to be removed, and Trump had deleted the tweet. For the campaign, the timing was just right.
“When Trump says or does things that are guaranteed to result in a pile-on, immediately responding can have a polarizing effect,” a Biden adviser said about the delay, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. “In many cases like that it’s more effective to hold your fire.”