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March 27, 2020

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Opinion Columnist

Joe Biden has been struggling to figure out his role during the early stages of the coronavirus crisis. He gave a solid speech on Monday, but has since been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for seeming to disappear. When he has spoken publicly — as he has done every day this week, from his home in Delaware — the media doesn’t pay much attention.
Biden is in a tricky spot. He has no official role in government, no votes to take in Congress and no decisions to make as governor. He is not even the Democratic nominee yet, with Bernie Sanders still in the race. But Biden is now the country’s most prominent Democrat. If he doesn’t respond to President Trump, it’s not clear who will.
So what are Biden’s options? I see several:
1. Offer sharp, fresh criticism of the government’s response. Criticizing Trump for his slow, uneven response to the crisis is fair and probably necessary. But it’s not going to resonate much when Biden offers it. It’s too obvious. This week, though, Biden started to make a more specific point: He singled out Ron DeSantis — Florida’s governor and a close Trump ally — for keeping open beaches and not telling people to stay home.
The actions of DeSantis and several other Republican governors (but not all, as Biden pointed out) directly conflict with the advice of public health experts. And these governors are often echoing Trump. By calling attention to the problem, Biden has a chance to help people understand that the likely coming outbreaks in many states aren’t inevitable. They will be the result of politicians not taking public safety seriously.


The most effective messages will often be ones in which Biden seems to be ahead of the curve. And to make those messages resonate, he will need to repeat himself.
2. Name a shadow cabinet. Several writers and political advisers, including some close to Biden, have made a version of this argument. As The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman writes:
In Britain, the opposition party maintains a “shadow” cabinet, a group of spokespeople assigned the same policy areas as the ministries of the government, to offer the opposition’s view on whatever issue is being discussed at a given moment. While Biden probably wouldn’t want to assign specific Cabinet positions now, he could utilize both his own aides and people in the broader Democratic world to give the public a picture of what government under President Biden would be up to — and provide a contrast with the chaos, corruption, and incompetence that characterizes the Trump administration.
An early example: The presentation on Saturday from Ron Klain, the Obama administration’s Ebola czar and Biden’s former chief of staff. “It not only offered a clear critique of the administration’s failures, it showed that the people around Biden … are competent, informed, and experienced,” Waldman wrote. To make this work, Biden would need to choose a diverse group of advisers who could speak as a proxy for him, including some who excite the progressive wing of the party.
3. Ignore the criticism and don’t try to grab the spotlight. When Ronald Reagan was running for president during the Iran hostage crisis, he deliberately avoided becoming Jimmy Carter’s harshest critic, as Monica Prasad of Northwestern University has noted. When Barack Obama was running for president during the financial crisis, he was careful about how he talked about George W. Bush’s response. Both Reagan and Obama understood the importance of not looking too political — and instead looking presidential — during a national crisis.


“This is a dangerous moment for Joe Biden,” Prasad wrote in Politico. Perhaps the best thing Biden could do is avoid saying something that would make him appear petty or open himself up to criticism, she added: “Biden similarly needs to let the president lead. If Trump is the ineffective and irresponsible caricature that his opponents think he is, events will show it soon enough.”
My own sense? Biden would probably help himself by doing a bit more of options #1 and #2. Yet option #3 has some benefits, too. Biden isn’t going to be the big story right now, almost no matter what. For his sake, he should try to become somewhat more visible but not radically so.