Invisible man? Amid pandemic, Biden sidelined by omnipresent Trump

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After nearly self-imploding in the first three state contests, former vice president Joe Biden (pictured March 2, 2020) turned his presidential campaign around, winning the lion's share of the next 25 primaries to become the presumptive nominee

Washington (AFP) - One month on from historically reclaiming Democratic presidential frontrunner status, Joe Biden is in physical and political isolation, basement-bound and largely unheard as Donald Trump commands Americans' attention with his coronavirus response.

It has been an awkward sidelining of an extraordinary comeback story.

After nearly self-imploding in the first three state contests in February, former vice president Biden turned his campaign around, winning the lion's share of the next 25 primaries to become the presumptive nominee over his rival Bernie Sanders.

Suddenly, Biden is struggling for attention during what would normally be a critical, high-profile point in a campaign.

In a situation unheard of in modern American politics, several states have postponed their primaries, mass rallies are paused and all in-person campaigning has ground to a halt.

Coronavirus is the inescapable news headline, and the president's megaphone during this ongoing tragedy -- 215,417 US cases and more than 5,000 deaths -- is impossible to eclipse.

"Crises are fundamentally presidential moments, and given that, Biden just doesn't have the capacity to truly break in," Josh Pacek, a University of Michigan professor and expert on political communication, told AFP by phone about the campaign ahead.

Trump, of course, is taking full advantage.

Daily White House briefings with him and his coronavirus task force now often roll past 90 minutes, with Trump spending significant chunks of time on his personal and administrative achievements.

Biden, by contrast, is broadcasting from his basement, clamoring for air time even while acknowledging he is a former insider with no knowledge of current operations or access to internal administration reports.

He accuses Trump of being "very slow to act" on coronavirus mitigation and downplaying the gravity of the crisis for weeks.

US networks are giving 77-year-old Biden some exposure, and he strives to present himself as a leader with greater presidential bearing than Trump.

But even if Wisconsin defies mounting criticism and holds its primary on April 7 as scheduled, Biden would be deprived of his greatest political assets: his warm, empathetic manner and a blue-collar "here's-the-deal" delivery during face-to-face contact with voters. 

"It doesn't worry me," Biden told CNN Tuesday about the campaign moving online.

"I'm sitting in my basement, there's a television studio set up down here," he said. "That's just going to have to do."

Trump, meanwhile, has dominated the airwaves. His job approval rating, underwater for years, has ticked up in the past 10 days, a common phenomenon for US presidents in the grips of a crisis.

But Pacek said the "rally 'round the flag effect" for Trump will be fleeting.

"That fades, every single time, every war," Pacek said. 

He pointed to George Bush's job approval skyrocketing to 89 percent in early 1991 during the Gulf War. The Republican lost re-election 20 months later.

By comparison, Trump's approval climbing only past 50 percent during an all-hands-on-deck emergency "portends somewhat poorly" for the president.

'Hard to spin'

David Parker, head of Montana State University's political science department, says Biden's inability to win public attention now is not a problem.

And with every campaign featuring an incumbent fundamentally being a referendum on the officeholder, Biden should not try to "be in the way" of Americans looking to their chief executive for reassurance.

"I think the best idea is to let the president try to govern, and expose the fact that his style of leadership is not effective for this crisis moment," Parker said.

Biden released a spot with just such a message Wednesday on Twitter, showing Trump attacking a reporter for asking about COVID-19 response efforts, juxtaposed with Biden's poised call to help those afflicted and to expand drive-through coronavirus testing.

"This moment calls for a president," the spot concludes. "In November, you can elect one." 

Twitter has its audience, but broadcast and cable television is the chief way a candidate will reach millions of Americans today, Parker noted.

Many traditional means of campaigning are no longer possible. But Amy Dacey, an American University policy expert who advised Barack Obama and John Kerry during their campaigns, said she does not believe voter engagement has been "cut off."

"I think there are a lot of tools in any campaign toolbox," she said. "Campaigns are just a conversation with voters, at the end of the day."

Pacek, the Michigan professor, suggested that as normal life returns, Biden will "reenter the picture."

And if coronavirus mitigation goes badly, "it's going to be hard to spin" for Trump.