In a Tuesday appearance on “The View” devoted mostly to the coronavirus crisis, Joe Biden was asked, “What do you say to Americans who feel that Democrats are in a way politicizing the issue and that we should be standing behind the president because this is an American problem?”
“I think there’s truth to both sides,” Biden answered. “That’s why, if you notice on what I’ve been doing, I’ve not been criticizing the president, but I’ve been pointing out where there’s disagreement as to how to proceed.”
At roughly the same time Biden spoke, a pro-Biden SuperPAC called Unite The Country released an ad accusing President Trump of calling coronavirus a “hoax” — a charge that has been discredited by a number of factcheckers. The ad also said Trump “eliminated the pandemic response team” — an accusation that is incomplete and misleading at best. Finally, the ad said Trump “let the virus spread unchecked across America” — an assertion that has little meaning for a disease that has circled the globe.
Biden also has criticized the president directly. On Jan. 31, the day Trump imposed travel restrictions on China, Biden, discussing the virus during a campaign stop in Iowa, said, “This is no time for Donald Trump’s record of hysteria, xenophobia, hysterical xenophobia and fear-mongering to lead the way instead of science.” Last week, when Trump referred to coronavirus as a “Chinese virus,” Biden said it again, tweeting, “Stop the xenophobic fear-mongering.”
Now, Biden says he does not want to engage in that sort of dialogue. “The American people don’t want us in a political fight,” he told “The View,” “and I want no part of a political fight, either.”
So what is going on? The Biden team appears to be searching for a new rhetorical approach to the crisis, seeking a way to attack Trump without appearing to attack Trump.
First, they don’t want to appear to be blaming Trump for the virus itself. On “The View,” Biden said, “The coronavirus is not (Trump’s) fault.” That seems a minimal concession, but it is what passes for fair-mindedness in a political fight.
The Unite The Country ad takes a similar approach. “Crisis comes to every presidency,” it opens, featuring images of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “We don’t blame them for that. What matters is how they handle it. Donald Trump didn’t create the coronavirus.”
Then, however, the ad pivots to the series of inaccurate, or misleading or incomplete charges noted above. It concludes: “Crisis comes to every president. This one failed.” In all, the ad is a mix of exoneration and accusation, ending in the more-sorrow-than-anger conclusion that Trump has failed the country.
One reason to take a new, slightly less aggressive, approach toward the president is that Trump seems to have significant support from voters as he manages the virus crisis. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, the president’s job approval rating has stayed steady at around 46% in recent times — essentially where it has been through most of Trump’s presidency. A new Gallup poll pegs the approval rating at 49% — the best of Trump’s presidency in Gallup surveys.
The president’s approval rating among Republicans, Gallup says, remains above 90%, while “Independents’ and Democrats’ approval of Trump’s performance has increased slightly since earlier this month, tying as the best he has registered to date among each group.”
That does not mean Trump enjoys high popularity among a broad majority of Americans — he never has as president — but it does suggest political rivals might want to take care in how they attack him over the virus crisis. Some analysts attribute Trump’s polling to a “rally effect” — that is, Americans instinctively supporting a leader in a moment of threat to the country. No matter what it is, it means that Democrats must search for ways to slam the president without offending those Americans who wish him success.
There is no doubt that as the number of coronavirus cases rises, Joe Biden and his Democratic supporters are refining the way they use the virus crisis politically — even as they say they are not using the virus crisis politically.