Joe Biden talks to reporters after returning to Wilmington, Delaware, on Friday. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters
The Observer

Biden aims to make election about Covid-19 as Trump steers focus elsewhere

American public’s view of the pandemic could be deciding factor as vote approaches


As the death toll from the coronavirus continues to rise in the US, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is eager to make the pandemic the central issue over the election race’s final two months.

Donald Trump’s re-election campaign would rather not.

The dramatically divergent approaches for addressing a pandemic on course to soon have cost 200,000 American lives have been on broad display over the past week.

An explosive article in the Atlantic magazine reporting disparaging comments the US president made about military service members and a new book by Bob Woodward delving into the inner workings of the Trump White House offered plenty of ammunition for the Biden campaign.

The Biden campaign held press conferences and conference calls, rolled out ads and issued statements. But through it all Biden’s team also made sure to keep emphasizing its fundamental argument: the Trump administration has bungled handling the pandemic and deserves to be thrown out.

“The vice-president and Senator [Kamala] Harris have been saying for months now that just getting a vaccine, while a critical milestone, an important breakthrough, and a reflection of the success of the scientific community, is not enough,” Jake Sullivan, a Biden campaign senior policy adviser, said in a recent call with reporters.

That call was titled “Press Call on Ensuring a Safe and Effective Covid-19 Vaccine” but Sullivan needled the Trump administration even if, contrary to serious analysts’ expectations, a vaccine did become available ahead of the November election.

“The vaccine is only as good as the ability of the administration to get it it into the arms of hundreds of millions of people in this country,” Sullivan said. “And that is a logistical and operational and implementation challenge of the highest order. And from the beginning of this pandemic we have seen this president fail time and time again when logistics and implementation were the issue.”

Meanwhile, Trump and his re-election campaign have been eager to label the coronavirus as a fading problem amid promises of rebuilding the US economy and restoring normal life.

Trump recently said the country was “rounding the final turn” on the coronavirus pandemic. Mike Pence, in his Republican national convention speech in August, promised the US was “on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year”.

The president and his aides have been more eager to focus on the economy, their attacks on Biden, foreign policy announcements, dark warnings of civil unrest and false predictions of a coming socialism should Biden win.

To a degree, the varying levels of eagerness to talk about coronavirus is understandable for both campaigns. Polling has shown voters broadly view Biden as the better candidate to handle the coronavirus pandemic while voters think the economy is in safer hands with Trump.

“The president has done a very bad job in this. There is no metric on which the president can actually claim he’s done a good job on Covid,” said Dr Zeke Emanuel, who served as a special adviser for health policy at the Office of Management and Budget for the Obama administration. “We haven’t done a good job on testing, on ventilators, on PPE, on access to Remdesivir. Nothing. He hasn’t prepared the country for a vaccine.”

Emanuel will be briefing Biden this week about distributing a vaccine. Emanuel added: “It’s obvious why [Trump] wants to pretend it’s not a big issue or a big deal.”
Donald Trump arrives aboard Air Force One on his way to a September 11 remembrance ceremony, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

When Biden picked the California senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, one of their earliest public appearances was to publicize a briefing on public health and the virus the two attended.

“We’re going to get what I get four times a week: a briefing on the state of coronavirus here and around the world, and what we should and shouldn’t be doing. And so it usually takes somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half,” Biden said at that event in mid-August. “Now, with the senator, we’re going to be digging in.”

Even when the national conversation was focused on the Woodward book, the Biden campaign ignored a wealth of other scandals contained within it and went straight for the bits on Trump and the coronavirus.

“He gaslights the American people about the dangers of a deadly virus while behind closed doors he tells his wealthy cabinet members and Washington insiders about -tells them the truth about how dangerous it was,” the Ohio senator Sherrod Brown said of private comments Trump made, as reported in Woodward’s book.

Of course, with slightly less than two months left to run, whose tactics win out will still be dictated by the path of the virus.

Avik Roy, a former healthcare policy adviser for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the effectiveness of focusing on the coronavirus depended on how pressing the pandemic remained to Americans leading up to the election.

“Ultimately what matters is how important the topic is to the public,” Roy told the Guardian. “As of now, it remains very important. Whether or not that continues, presumably, will be based in part on how the pandemic goes over the next two months.”

• This article was amended on 14 September 2020 to remove a paragraph about a Trump campaign ad that was erroneously included in the story owing to a misunderstanding over dates.