Self-isolated from a traditional campaign, Joe Biden is distanced from a US election victory

The former vice president is not savvy with the tech needed to reach voters remotely, and his wealthy prospective donors are now afraid to part with their cash

Former Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a virtual press briefing on a smartphone in this arranged photograph in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. During the livestreamed news conference today, Biden said he didn't see the need for another debate, which the Democratic National Committee had previously said would happen sometime in April. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
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When coronavirus hit the US in early March, the conventional wisdom in the media was quick to form. Talking heads opined that this was President Donald Trump’s Hurricane Katrina, dooming him to defeat in November's elections.

The disaster, the argument went, was a political gift for Joe Biden, a former vice president and the all-but-certain Democratic nominee. While Mr Trump exhibited his trademark crass self-regard and tendency to ignore the advice of officials, Mr Biden would be a reassuring, more presidential figure.

Throw in Mr Trump’s early dismissal of the impending pandemic, problems with preparedness and the slowness to test Americans for Covid-19, and it seemed like a golden opportunity for Mr Biden.

Fast forward to the end of March, and Mr Biden seems to be slipping. Last week, a Gallup poll indicated 60 per cent of Americans approve of the job Mr Trump is doing to combat the virus, edging up his approval rating to 49 per cent, the highest of his presidency. A Monmouth poll showed Mr Biden’s national lead had shrunk to just 3 per cent.

Mr Trump has been appearing in the White House briefing room daily, alongside widely-respected experts, like Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House's coronavirus taskforce. He is dominating the news.

In contrast, the housebound Mr Biden has been reduced to solo appearances via video link from his darkened basement in Delaware. At 77, Mr Biden is at high risk from coronavirus and is sensibly following medical advice. But it is hard for him to compete with a commander-in-chief rallying the nation.

With an almost-insurmountable lead over his rival Bernie Sanders in the Democratic nomination process, the rise of the virus is preventing Mr Biden from capitalising on the momentum he had built.

Mr Biden was the late choice of Democrats, who decided in the end that they needed a safe pick to unite behind to defeat Mr. Trump.

But he ran an uneven, old-fashioned campaign, failing to adapt to the online world younger Americans inhabit and trailing badly in fundraising. Against Mr Trump’s campaign war chest of $94 million, Mr Biden entered March with just $12.1 million.

Hoping that voters would reject Mr Trump out of personal distaste was not a winning strategy in 2016

Now he is unable to hold fundraisers at the homes of wealthy donors or whip up enthusiasm with large rallies. Trying to ask people facing economic ruin to donate cash to a politician can look unseemly. So, too, does running television advertisements lambasting Mr. Trump.

Mr Biden, a full-time politician for five decades, is a traditionalist who shows little aptitude for the mastery of digital tools. On camera, he is an uncertain performer prone to stumbles and misstatements of fact.

The former vice president’s impromptu home television studio is an imperfect setting for broadcasts. In a speech last week, he apparently lost track of his teleprompter and suddenly stopped talking before frantically motioning to off-screen aides.

Coughing repeatedly and often touching his eyes and nose, Mr Biden was chastised by one host for sneezing into his hand rather than his arm. At times he has been plain puzzling, such as when he stated: “We have to take care of the cure. That will make the problem worse no matter what.”

Mr Biden has also struggled to take on Mr Trump without seeming too partisan at a time of national crisis. “I think there’s truth to both sides,” he said on a morning show. “That’s why, if you notice what I’ve been doing, I’ve not been criticising the president, but I’ve been pointing out where there’s disagreement as to how to proceed.” 

That afternoon, he blasted Mr Trump. “He says he’s a wartime president,” Biden said. “Well, act like one.” On another programme, he said of Mr Trump: “I just can’t figure the guy. It’s like, I don’t know, it’s like watching a yo-yo. I shouldn’t have said it that way.”

Democrats argue that Mr Biden’s blunders and false statements – such as his claim he was arrested in South Africa during the apartheid era – pale in comparison to what has emanated from Mr Trump’s mouth.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, center, speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator, listen during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sunday, March 29, 2020. Trump said his administration expects the peak of deaths in the U.S. coronavirus outbreak to be reached in about two weeks, and that he would extend guidelines for Americans to distance themselves from one another until April 30. Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/CNP/Bloomberg

They have a point. “I am a gaffe machine, but my God what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth,” Biden said in 2018.

But hoping that voters would reject Mr Trump out of personal distaste for his obvious character flaws was not a winning strategy in 2016, when many disliked him but voted for him anyway because they hated the political system more.

Mr Biden is the personification of that rejected political system. His argument is that America should “return to normalcy,” and the Obama era. But it is more accurate to view Mr Trump not as the cause, but as the symptom of a broken politics.

There are so many unknowns that it is impossible to predict who will be the victor when Americans go to the polls in November – or even whether they will be able to go to those polls.

Right now, however, voters are not blaming Mr Trump for every hiccup in dealing with a pandemic that caught the world flat-footed. They are anxious not just about the virus but about their livelihoods and the effect on the American economy and view Mr Trump’s impatience and optimism as appropriate. When things are at their worst, Americans tend to want to rally around their head of state.

Last week, Mr Trump oversaw the biggest economic stimulus package in American history, passed by Republicans and Democrats. For all his bluster, he is mostly adhering to the recommendations of the likes of Drs Fauci and Birx.

If the US emerges from the coronavirus without the worst predictions coming to pass, Mr Trump could win credit for having done his job. Democrats may want to portray Mr Biden as a saviour but Americans do not yet view him as their knight in shining armour.

Toby Harnden is a journalist, editor and author based in Washington DC