If it feels like you haven’t seen Joe Biden much lately, you’re not losing your mind. Not many people have.
Biden has fielded criticism over the course of the year for a, let’s say, light campaign schedule — in stark contrast to Trump’s relatively vigorous one. During the Democratic National Convention in August, some Democrats noted with puzzlement that, unlike Obama, who flew to Philadelphia for his speech despite the virtual nature of the week-long event, Biden stubbornly stayed in his Wilmington basement in Delaware. They urged him to hit the trail or, at least, talk to the press a little more often.
“If you’re not going to be out on the trail, you should be doing interviews every single day,” one frustrated strategist told the Hill’s Amie Parnes. “For whatever reason, they have determined that they can’t put him out there. That’s the worst strategy.”
With only a little more than sixty days to go until the election, by September Biden has certainly stepped up his travel schedule. And yet despite the rapidly approaching election date, and the urgency of defeating an increasingly authoritarian Trump, Biden has continued to inexplicably disappear for whole days.
Thursday, September 24 marked the ninth day this month that Biden’s campaign has called a “lid” — meaning that the press effectively won’t see or hear the candidate for the rest of the day — before noon. With only forty days to go until voting, this lid came at 9:20 AM. At other times in the month, it’s come shortly after 10 AM. A few days back, it came at 8:34 AM. As of Thursday, Biden had effectively taken the day off campaigning for almost a third of the entire month. This despite reassuring Senate Democrats only a week ago that he would campaign aggressively in this final stretch of the contest.
Biden’s personal absence from his own campaign is mirrored by that campaign’s own absence from the streets. While Trump’s campaign is phone-banking and knocking on what they say is a million doors a week — explicitly modeling itself on Barack Obama’s two campaigns — Biden’s camp has eschewed that approach, choosing not to knock on any doors at all because it doesn’t “have any impact on reaching voters,” as his campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon told reporters.
Earlier this month, Time magazine went looking for the Biden campaign in the crucial battleground state of Michigan and couldn’t find it: no lawn signs, no campaign field offices, and seemingly no volunteers. “What do you mean by ‘on the ground?’” one befuddled official Biden backer replied when asked how many of their people were on the ground in the state.
All of which makes Biden’s bizarre personal vanishing act extra frustrating for anyone truly worried about a second Trump term. Some are defending Biden by charging that he simply has more important things to do. “People. Biden is doing debate prep,” tweeted the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein on Thursday. “That’s why he’s calling lids. It’s not that complicated.”
Except by his own admission, Biden isn’t. The day before, when asked by Fox reporter Madeleine Rivera about his debate preparation, Biden replied, in an exchange documented on video: “I’ve started to prepare, but I haven’t gotten into it really heavily. I will begin tomorrow.” Biden’s chronic absence in the homestretch of the campaign, therefore, remains unexplained.
This poses two problems. One is the well-documented enthusiasm gap between Trump and Biden. Given Biden’s narrow lead in the battleground states, as well as pre-existing mail-in balloting issues that saw more than half a million votes invalidated in the Democratic primary alone, the invisibility of both Biden and his campaign infrastructure could well deliver Trump a slim and non-court-engineered win through the electoral college.
The other is what might happen if Trump loses the electoral college but simply refuses to accept the result, a prospect heightened this week by Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Earlier this year, the Transition Integrity Project (TIP), an initiative of more than a hundred bipartisan campaign and government bigwigs, gamed out four different election day scenarios, including a narrow and a definitive Biden win, and an ambiguous result. In each of these three, popular mobilization was key to removing Trump from power.
“A show of numbers in the streets — and actions in the streets — may be decisive factors in determining what the public perceives as a just and legitimate outcome,” warned the resulting report. “During TIP’s exercises, Team Biden almost always called for and relied on mass protests to demonstrate the public’s commitment to a ‘legitimate’ outcome, with the objective of hardening the resolve of Democratic elected officials to fight and take action, and to dramatize the stakes.”
But it’ll be hard to inspire mass action on the streets with a candidate many Democratic voters are already leery of; and it’ll be even harder if a third of the time he’s not even there. Making things more difficult is the Biden camp’s attitude toward protest. In the TIP war games, the simulated Biden team planned to have him take advantage of the recent protests against police brutality.
“If anything, the scale of recent demonstrations has increased the stakes for the Democratic Party to build strong ties with grassroots organizations and be responsive to the movement’s demands,” the report states.
But other than spray-painting “Black Lives Matter” on streets and other symbolic acts, Biden and the rest of the party have failed to do this: they’ve steadfastly resisted the demands of protesters, and more often than not it’s been Democratic officials who have been responsible for the violent police response to the movement. It’s hard to imagine overwhelmingly young protesters rallying around a man one of the Black Lives Matter leaders calls “pretty far from the concerns that this movement has put forward,” and there’s no guarantee they’ll be as animated by Trump’s attempt to cling to power as they have been against long-running police brutality. As TIP itself concluded:
“While most participants believed that the Trump campaign has the real-life capacity to mobilize and, to a significant extent, steer and control the actions of Trump supporters, several participants expressed serious doubt about the ability of the Biden campaign to either mobilize or control left-wing activists.”
Polarization of the Media
What’s interesting about Biden’s now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t approach to campaigning is that while most reporters are taking note of it, only some are reporting on it.
On Twitter, reporters from ABC, the Hill, the Associated Press, CBS, and the New York Times all commented on Biden’s early lids, sometimes noting how little time there is left for campaigning, sometimes contrasting it with Trump’s more busy campaign schedule.
“Calling a lid so early in the day is extraordinary this close to an election,” tweeted the BBC’s Nick Bryant. “Reminds me of following Hillary Clinton in 2016, who had days when her handlers would hardly schedule any appearances. The campaign felt listless and complacent.”
But outside social media, it is almost exclusively the right-wing press — outlets like the National Review, Daily Caller, the Federalist, and a host of smaller ones — who have actually published anything about it. When the mainstream press has reported on it, it’s only been because of Trump mentioning it on the stump, or to play it down, with Politico labeling anyone nervous that Biden may be sleepwalking into handing a dangerous authoritarian four more years of power “bedwetters.”
In other words, the episode yet again starkly lays bare the media polarization Matt Taibbi has written about: of an ecosystem that’s increasingly arranged by partisan loyalty (or antipathy), and sees the pro-Democratic press report on negative stories about the GOP, and the pro-Republican press report on negative stories about the Democrats. Think of it as the Foxification of the mainstream news.
We saw this play out in another recent story: the release of a Senate report on the controversy around Biden’s son, Hunter, who was plopped on the board of a Ukrainian gas company owned by a corrupt oligarch at the same time his father was spearheading the US government’s anti-corruption efforts in the country.
The report, based on documents and closed-door testimony from Obama-era officials, found, among other things, that senior state department officials repeatedly raised concerns about Hunter’s involvement in the company, that it hindered the Obama administration’s anti-corruption messaging, and even played into Russian propaganda attempts to undermine the US program. (Amusingly, the report also found that Hunter’s investment firm took $3.5 million from a Russian billionaire).
Needless to say, all of this goes against the prevailing media narrative about the whole affair since it exploded into the collective consciousness late last year. And once again, reporting on the affair fell on starkly partisan lines, with Republican-aligned media accurately reporting some of its major findings, and Democratic-aligned (or at least, anti-Trump) media playing it down.
If you want to understand this phenomenon, you have to not only understand how Trump’s election and continuing presence in the White House has scrambled establishment politics, but also how the press views itself as complicit in his 2016 win. Reporters and even the Times itself have expressed contrition for doing their jobs in 2016 — reporting on newsworthy, scandalous revelations found in leaked emails from the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 — viewing themselves in retrospect as having done Trump’s (and, by extension, the Kremlin’s) bidding.
Just this week, Washington Post editor Marty Baron sent his newsroom a memo laying out how to deal with another, similar leak in this year’s election, instructing them to make sure of its newsworthiness and authenticity, to note the possible motivations behind it, and to “help readers understand how political lines of attack fit into disinformation operations.” (Baron might consider sending another, identical memo to his staff around reporting allegations from anonymous intelligence sources).
But this was never the trouble with the 2016 leaks; the reason they were so damaging was precisely because they were both authentic and newsworthy. But the memo is another sign of the stark divisions set off by 2016 that have crept into the previously above-it-all mainstream press. In a world where applying scrutiny to Trump’s opponent is viewed as tacitly supporting Trump’s election, better to play down damaging new information about how his son’s corruption undermined US policy; the candidate’s own periodic disappearance from the campaign; and even slow-walk or try to discredit a decades-old sexual assault allegation against Biden — even as copious reporting accurately shows Trump is far worse in these areas anyway.
It will be interesting to see if this approach ends with Trump’s removal from power, or if it’ll continue if and when Biden becomes president. But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Biden will have to win the election first. And traditionally, that’s been hard to do when the candidate himself is too complacent to run a real campaign.