Joe Biden began his remarks on March 12 with the familiar words that often meet Americans in moments of fear and crisis: “My fellow Americans.”
For the next 18 minutes, the Democrats’ leading contender for the presidency offered Americans a dress rehearsal for the job he hopes to have come January. Reading from prepared remarks about how to combat the global coronavirus pandemic, he sought to reassure the public, markets and allies that the United States will prevail—all while appearing undeniably presidential. After the speech, #PresidentBiden was trending on Twitter.
About an hour and a half later, Bernie Sanders, who significantly trails Biden for the Democratic nomination, struck a similar tone. In the face of a global pandemic, he said, Americans must act not for themselves, but in the service of others. “Now is the time for solidarity. Now is the time to come together with love and compassion for all.”
The two Democratic rivals’ speeches diverged from one another’s. Biden emphasized competence and experience, while Sanders repeatedly called for solidarity. But both made a point of differentiating themselves most markedly from the actual President.
In planned remarks from the Oval Office on March 11, President Donald Trump bungled his message, declared the U.S. in a unilateral fight against a “foreign virus,” and accidentally announced a ban on all travel and trade with Europe. (The White House later clarified it was only travel of non-Americans and that trade between the U.S. and Europe would continue.)
Where Trump characterized the fight against COVID-19 as one in which the U.S. faced off against the world, both Biden and Sanders described the stakes as one in which humans were allied with one another: the virus must be wrestled to containment through international cooperation. “The coronavirus does not have a political affiliation,” Biden said, standing in front of a backdrop of five U.S. flags at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware.
“If there ever was a time in the modern history of our country when we are all in this together, this is that moment,” Sanders said, before a wall plastered with his campaign logo, an American flag and a Vermont flag in Burlington, Vermont.
Both Biden and Sanders unleashed withering criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis so far. “Unfortunately, this virus laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current administration,” Biden said. “Public fears are being compounded by pervasive lack of trust in this president fueled by adversarial relationship with the truth that he continues to have.”
“We have an administration that is largely incompetent, and whose incompetence and recklessness have threatened the lives of many, many people in our country,” Sanders said.
Both men also offered voters a glimpse of their own coronavirus response plans—blueprints for what they would do if they were President. Biden’s proposal underscored his own deep experience in the White House. He reminded Americans of his front row seats during the Ebola crisis, when his former chief of staff and current adviser Ron Klain led the Obama administration’s response. He then offered a litany of solutions, which were drafted with input from a host of leading experts, including Klain, bioethicist Zeke Emanuel and former White House homeland security chief Lisa Monaco: free and accessible testing, lower barriers for lab trials on a vaccine, economic relief for those affected and added hospital capacity, including temporary sites. Among his other recommendations were a call for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set clear standards for when to close schools and other high-traffic sites.
Sanders’s plan was a reflection of his campaign that focused on folding marginalized people into politics. The appropriate response, he said, would include declaring a national emergency, making access to testing and eventual treatment or vaccine free of charge and pushing for national and state hotlines to respond to queries with accurate information. He would advocate for paid family and medical leave, call for a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and utility shutoffs during this outbreak, and demand that workers in the gig economy be allowed to file for unemployment.
“The coronavirus is already causing a global economic meltdown which is impacting people throughout the world and in our own country,” Sanders said. “And it is especially dangerous for low income and working class families, people who today, before the crisis, are struggling economically.”
While both Biden and Sanders struck notes of empathy for the American people, their campaigns were also operating from places of deep uncertainty. As the threat became more acutely apparent, each scaled back large-format campaigning and told staffers to work from home.
While Biden has emerged in recent days as the clear front-runner, his campaign remains a work in progress. On Thursday, he installed the third top aide with final say he’s had in a year. Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, a 43-year-old political pro, is set to become the new manager in the campaign’s Philadelphia headquarters. O’Malley Dillon is a no-nonsense taskmaster whose operations are precise, and the campaign is hoping she’ll bring that discipline to a campaign that has often felt like it was ambling.
Meanwhile, Sanders’s campaign, facing increasingly unlikely prospects for the Democratic nomination, remained solidly on-message: good leadership must reflect the needs of all people living within U.S. borders. In his speech Thursday, Sanders underscored that the country is at a disadvantage because it does not guarantee health care for all. The number of uninsured or underinsured people are inherently a liability to the country in controlling coronavirus because they cannot afford to seek the appropriate medical attention.
For both candidates, the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to showcase their leadership styles—if primarily as an alternative to Trump.