WASHINGTON - Until a few days ago, Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden kept a low profile while in protective self-isolation from the coronavirus at his home in Delaware.
After surging past chief rival Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Super Tuesday and in a handful of subsequent crucial primaries, Biden and the Democratic primary contest were abruptly overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis sweeping the nation.
But as Democratic criticism of President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic has grown, Biden, 77, seems to have found an opening to speak out more — to critique the president and explain how he would have handled the situation differently.
In a speech Monday and a subsequent media blitz, Biden criticized Trump for being slow in responding to the virus, ignoring medical experts’ advice and playing down the threat, even as his own intelligence officials were warning him about it as early as January.
“For too long, the warning signs were ignored,” Biden said during the live-streamed speech from a tiny TV studio built in his home. "For too long, the administration said the threats were “under control,” “contained,” “like the flu.”
Biden then took Trump to task for failing to exercise powers under the Defense Production Act to order manufacturers to ramp up production of medical supplies such as ventilators and surgical masks.
"Trump keeps saying he’s ‘a wartime president.’ Well, start to act like one,” Biden said.
Trump has signed two executive orders invoking powers under the Korean War-era law but has said he is reserving it for "a worst-case scenario."
The president has backed a series of massive spending bills to address the public health crisis and temporarily prop up the economy and has supported state and local orders that have forced as many as 100 million Americans to shelter in place.
As China locked down major cities hit by the virus in January, the Trump administration on January 31 announced travel restrictions to and from China, and on March 12, imposed a ban on most travel from Europe.
However, Trump’s latest call for a major scaling back of the shelter-in-place orders by Easter to allow millions to return to their jobs and recharge the economy — even while the virus continues to spread throughout the country at an alarming pace — has drawn fire from Democrats, governors, public health experts and scientists.
The crisis has put Biden in a tight spot.The virus grew into a full-blown pandemic earlier this month, just as the former vice president was basking in a surprise comeback during key primary contests for the Democratic nomination.
But with the country focused on the crisis and the Trump's administration's response, Biden’s campaign has struggled to garner attention.
A detailed coronavirus plan released by the Biden campaign earlier this month seems to have fallen by the wayside. The plan promised a “decisive public health response,” including widely available free testing and a “decisive economic response,” including paid leave and help for small businesses affected by the pandemic. "
What a challenge!" said Joseph Pika, a retired University of Delaware political scientist who has followed Biden’s political career.
"Campaigns are usually based on what has worked before, especially during the last presidential election cycle. This requires the managers to be creative." Pika said via email that while Biden's speech was "effective," as it came before Trump adopted a "war-time commander-chief posture," the former vice president now runs the risk of appearing to take partisan advantage of a crisis.
What’s more, Trump’s approval rating has risen as he began making almost daily appearances with his coronavirus task force to tout administration efforts to combat the virus.
Seeking to avoid charges of partisanship during a national emergency, Biden has carefully avoided blaming Trump for the virus outbreak.
“The coronavirus is not his fault, but the lack of speed with which to respond to it has to move much faster," Biden said on ABC’s “The View” on Monday.
"This is not about Democrat or Republican. This is not about what your party is. It's about getting through this."
It was one of Biden's three TV appearances on Monday, including CNN and MSNBC. They were all designed to project an air of authority and a different leadership style in the face of the nation's worst public health disaster in more than a century.
Appearing on CNN after Trump announced Tuesday that he wanted to “reopen the country” by Easter on April 12, Biden suggested the president’s goal was unrealistic given that the virus is still spreading. “Look, we all want the economy to open as rapidly as possible,” Biden said. "But the idea that we're in a position where we're saying, by Easter, he wants to have everybody going back to work. What's he talking about?"
Biden has made his decades of public service a centerpiece of his career. He served as a Democratic senator from Delaware from 1973 to 2009, and two terms as vice president during the Obama presidency from 2009 to 2017.
As Biden has chided Trump over the coronavirus, the Trump campaign has pushed back, citing Biden's own much-criticized comments about the way germs move during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. "Joe Biden will again politicize coronavirus today.
But his record on pandemics is one of incompetence," a Twitter account managed by the Trump campaign tweeted.
During the 2009 swine flu outbreak, Biden made reckless comments unsupported by science & the experts. The Obama Admin had to clean up his mess & apologize for his ineptitude."
Fact-checking site PolitiFact rated the Trump team's claim as "mostly true," reporting that Biden's comment "drew criticism over fear-mongering, particularly from the travel industry, and experts told us Biden got it wrong."
Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said Biden should explain how he would handle the crisis differently.
“What’s important for him to do is to showcase, to tell what he would do differently and to explain what difference that would have made so that people can make a decision about his crisis leadership should he become president,” Rozell said in an interview.