Like It or Not, the Presidential Campaign Is Effectively on Hiatus

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic candidates debate in Washington, D.C., March 15, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Today, the New York Times writes that likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden “has struggled to break through given the flood of news about the outbreak, and he lacks the kind of platform that is available to Mr. Trump, who has appeared daily at White House briefings on the virus.”

Inherent in this discussion is the presumption that Biden needs to stay in the public eye during this period. But it is difficult to spend much time thinking about the presidential election in November when everyone is wondering whether their loved ones will still be healthy or their job will still exist next month. Or next week.

At this moment, the American people will be persuaded about their 2020 choice by actions, not arguments. Right now, Biden has no role in government; he can object to decisions by Trump, but that will rarely break through the daily avalanche of news about the virus.

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The 2020 election is almost certainly going to be a referendum on how the Trump administration handled the coronavirus crisis. If the electorate is largely relieved, or feels like it dodged a bullet, then Trump will probably be reelected. If the electorate feels like it has suffered an epic calamity that was exacerbated by government actions, then the Democratic nominee will probably be elected, despite whatever other flaws he may have.

If you are a 77-year-old man who may not have the stamina of his younger years, the idea of the presidential race going on hiatus for a few weeks or months doesn’t seem so bad. The idea of Biden setting up a “shadow cabinet” of rival health officials from the Obama administration is probably not all that helpful; they will either echo what the current health officials are saying, or contradict them and add to public confusion. By the fall — or possibly within a matter of weeks — the American people will have probably decided how they feel about how President Trump handled this crisis. Short online videos with Ron Klain, Obama’s Ebola response coordinator, probably won’t change those feelings much.

In the meantime, Biden and his advisers may want to contemplate how to best govern a post-coronavirus America. The priorities and objectives of the American changed dramatically from January to now. On Inauguration Day 2021, what parts of the economy will still be rebuilding from this sudden shock? How much lower will tax revenues be compared to projections? What will be left of America’s relationship with China? Will continuity of government procedures have created a Congress that no longer needs to be in Washington to vote? What condition will our health-care system be in after months of fighting a deadly virus? Biden and his team have time on their hands right now, so they might as well use it wisely.

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