April 19, 2020
by Françoise Coste is a Professor in American civilization at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès.
"Let’s do this". With these encouraging and optimistic words, Joe Biden announces on his Twitter account the great news everyone was expecting: Back Obama officially endorces him.
The week was auspicious for the ex Vice-President, each day bringing a heavyweight to his candidacy: Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, then Elizabeth Warren. So the Democratic primary being de facto over, Biden is the only runner and will be the party's candidate. But how to campaign while the United States are confined and they are the country the most impacted by the pandemic?
The situation is a real handicap for Biden. Obviously, given his long career in Washington (35 years in the Senate, then 8 as Obama's Vice-President), he doesn't need to travel accross the country to make himself known. However, once the US starts to come out of confinement, can Biden, who is 77, go out in public? Though Trump is also in his seventies, the issue will not be the same for him: he's already announced that, no matter what, he would not wear a mask, and he doesn't need to be out in the field as much as Biden: after all, an exiting president can campaign from the White House since all of his comings and goings is covered by the media. Can you imagine a presidential candidate campaigning with a mask on his face and refusing to shake hands with the voters? He and his team must imperatively invent a new way of campaigning. For now, Biden has put a small studio in place at his house and he communicates through videos posted on-line. No need to point out that this fall-back make-shift medium is no match for the media mogul that is Donald Trump, whether on television or social media which he uses like no other political man in the United States (even if, essentially, Obama has more followers on Twitter than Trump, nobody can rival his trademark ultra-controversial style). Today, Trump sucks up all the political oxygen of the United States, whether in the left-wing press that reacts over all his excesses, or in the right-wing press that devotes to him a quasi cult of personality. His daily White House press conferences monopolize the media's attention and make Biden completely inaudible.
And that's really too bad because, if you listen closely to Obama's endorcement statement, the former president gives interesting ideas on the direction the Democratic presidential campaign could take. in it, Obama sort of takes his own inventory by admitting that, if he had to be a candidate today, he would be much less cautious in his proposals than in 2008 (his use of the word "bold" comes up consistently). Reading between the lines, he seems to regret the relative restreint of his two terms and he recognizes that Biden, if he is elected, will hjave to "go further", especially on the sensitive issue of Obamacare. In 2009, during the never-ending negotiations on health reform, the Obama administration had right from the beginning put aside the Democratic party's left-wing main idea, known as the "public option": the idea was to create an insurance system that was totally public, managed directly by the Federal government. At that time, upholding this type of reform was way too radical, which is why the in-between ACA (Affordable Care Act, often designated as Obamacare) came to be, a system in which the Federal government seeks to force citizens to have a health insurance, but also provides fiscal benefits so they can get them from (rich) private insurance companies. But in this April 14 speech, Obama comes back on his 2009 stance and says he's favorable to a "public option", a symbolic turnaround that shows how much Bernie Sanders, though he lost the primaries, has pushed the party to the left.
The health insurance issue is of course going to dominate the presidential campaign, when it finally starts, because of Covid-19's devastating effects. One can imagine that Biden will make it his central theme, and this for two reasons. First, Trump's management of the crisis is quite problematic on many levels: unprepared public health agencies, a White House that is systematically minimizing the risk since the month of January, a blatant lack of empathy by the president toward the victims, the administration's strong reticence to help states led by Democratic governors, Trump's eagerness to lift the confinement against medical advice, etc. All this gives Biden an ideal plan of attack. And then, Biden and his team have a lot of experience with public health crises. One of his close advisors, Ron Klain, had been chosen by Obama in 2014 to coordinate the American response to the Ebola epidemic that was rampant at the time. So his expertise is a great asset to Biden's campaign who should be inspired by the British model's shadow cabinet and make Klain a substitute secretary of health. What are Biden and Klain waiting for to have a daily press conference on Covid-19, in order to compete against Trump's? A press conference where, rather than being surrounded by sycophants and spending hours and hours complaining and fighting with journalists, they could recognize the terrible human impact of the coronavirus on the country and, especially, give concrete information on the virus to Americans. One can guess that it will be from that angle that Democrates will include the coronavirus in their campaign, by again looking at Obama's video posted several days ago: indeed, it comes back several times on the need for politicians to talk with scientists and to base their decisions on science, in implicite opposition to the current president's erratic and political management. But this would need for the campaign to finally start...
Françoise Coste is a Professor in American civilization at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès (laboratoire CAS, Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes), with a research focus on the political history of the United States; her biography on Ronald Reagan, Reagan, published with Perrin, received the political biography of the year award in 2015.