The 2020 general election has begun — kind of.
With the withdrawal Wednesday of Sen. Bernie Sanders from the Democratic race, Joe Biden and President Donald Trump have no remaining opponents but each other. The two men have already drawn clear battle lines for the campaign, framing the election as a choice between Biden’s sturdily traditional conception of U.S. presidential leadership and Trump’s proudly divisive approach.
Yet the actual activities of the campaign remain largely on hold, frozen by the coronavirus outbreak that has brought most other aspects of the country’s public life to a standstill. For the foreseeable future, the pandemic has overtaken all other issues in the campaign and may well turn the election into a one-issue debate over Trump’s record in the crisis.
Far from taking a triumphant victory lap that might have greatly amplified his message, Biden remains largely confined to his home in Wilmington, Del., addressing voters on television and over internet livestreams, and receiving frequent briefings from policy experts on the pervasive disease and its economic toll. If Biden and Sanders are to share the stage at a rally for party unity at some point, it is entirely unclear when that might even be possible in a period of statewide lockdowns and social distancing.
Trump, too, has canceled all his campaign events, dispatching political surrogates and members of his family to make the case against Biden online but holding none of the rallies he had hoped to use to thunder against the former vice president all through the spring and summer. He has addressed the country daily from the White House briefing room, a forum often dominated by contentious exchanges with reporters about the halting federal response to the coronavirus.
Reflecting the sobering context for the campaign, the first direct exchange between Trump and Biden this week was not a public clash but a private phone call: The two spoke briefly Monday to discuss the outbreak, afterward sharing details only sparingly. Trump on Monday said it had been “a very nice conversation” in which Biden had shared a number of policy recommendations for dealing with the virus. “He had suggestions,” the president said, adding, “Doesn’t mean I agree with those suggestions.”
Biden’s account was not much richer, and in a CNN interview Tuesday night he indicated that he and Trump had agreed to keep most details of their conversation confidential. “I laid out four or five specific points that I thought were necessary,” Biden said.
The moment of mutual graciousness is unlikely to last very long: Trump has routinely attacked Biden in harshly personal terms, and he has sought to defend his own management of the pandemic by criticizing aspects of the Obama administration’s public health record, often in incomplete or misleading terms. He appears likely to try to blame the worst of the pandemic on international forces — like the Chinese government and the World Health Organization — and on the Democratic governors who have accused federal agencies of letting down their hard-hit states.
While Biden has taken a restrained approach to criticizing Trump over the past month, he is under pressure from other Democratic leaders and political donors to step up his antagonism of the president and his flawed management of an extraordinary public health emergency.
The political impact of the pandemic is still unclear, although the modest polling bump that Trump enjoyed last month — a function, experts said, of the public instinct to rally around a leader in a crisis — appears to have receded quickly. Biden has tended to lead Trump in general election polling, but the margins have varied widely.
A CNN poll published Wednesday found that a narrow majority of Americans said they now disapprove of Trump’s handling of the virus, almost exactly matching his overall approval ratings. Fifty-five percent of Americans said the federal government overall had done a poor job of confronting the outbreak.
There are signs that voters are growing more dissatisfied with the president’s response as he makes little attempt to refrain from his caustic ad hominem attacks when the economy is reeling, the death toll is soaring and voters are looking for reassurance.