In all my memories of Presidential campaigns the common theme is, well, people, throngs and throngs of people surrounding a smiling, waving candidate whose presence appears to electrify those in the photographs that become part of American history. Candidates see to it that they’re often photographed surrounded by happy, smiling people who are presumably counting down the minutes until they can cast a vote for their guy (or gal).
Anyone in politics knows that, for better or worse, optics matter. There are certain moments forever stamped on the minds of American voters. Reaching back a few decades, the notorious disaster of Michael Dukakis and the tank comes to mind. More recently, who can forget the indelible image of then-Republican Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush asking an audience to “please clap” for him at a 2016 campaign event in New Hampshire? The moment became an instant meme, and it comes to my mind often lately as I read piece after piece about Joe Biden’s novel approach of running for the nation’s highest office by implementing what is essentially a phone-it-in strategy to win the White House.
Certainly we are wading through unprecedented times. Efforts to combat COVID-19 continue to reshape countless aspects of day-to-day life in America. Who could have imagined that, after decades of throwing his hat in the Presidential ring, Joe Biden would finally find himself on the precipice of winning his party’s nomination only to be relegated to campaign from the confines of his home due to a global pandemic?
According to the Associated Press Biden has no plans to begin campaigning outside his home anytime soon, a decision that some are openly questioning as the campaign season marches on alongside ongoing efforts to grapple with COVID-19. While voters are certainly aware of mitigating circumstances, a pandemic doesn’t change the optics that have some Democratic strategists worried. The image of a seventy-seven-year-old Joe Biden alone in his home attempting to reach voters via technology is an image that rightfully raises questions about the wisdom of his strategy of “keeping to the rules and following the instructions that (have) been put forward by doctors.”
Biden’s statement about rule-keeping begs the question: who won the White House by keeping the rules? Certainly not Donald Trump, Biden’s November opponent whom he’ll presumably debate at some point in the future.
There has been a low-level but constant hum about Biden’s age throughout his most recent attempt to win the Democratic nomination. Biden and Trump are both in their seventies, but the contrasting picture of the two men presented to voters is stark at the moment. Biden remains cloistered in his home while Trump is conducting countless press conferences during which he appears healthy and ready as always to grapple with the press. Trump plans to travel to Pennsylvania next week; Biden claims he will remain at home “to set an example.”
Whether Biden’s attempt to campaign while quarantined is wise or foolish remains to be seen. As restrictions on gathering ease in certain states and November draws ever nearer I presume Biden will hold some in-person campaign events, but as anyone in politics knows, optics matter and momentum (and the money that often follows it) matters, and the clock is ticking.