WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump spent much of Sunday using Twitter as a bullhorn to urge “law and order” and tougher action by police against protesters around the country. Joe Biden quietly visited the site of protests in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, and talked to some of the demonstrators. Earlier, he wrote a post on Medium expressing empathy for those despairing about the killing of George Floyd.
That low-key, high-touch approach may be a sign of how the presumptive Democratic nominee presents himself in the five months before the presidential election, emphasizing calm and competence as a contrast to a mercurial president.
It is an approach that carries the risk of being drowned out by the much louder, more persistent voice of Trump. On one of the most profound weekends the nation has seen, with violence in dozens of cities, Biden was out of wide public view.
“He’s not in office, and he certainly does not have the megaphone like the person currently occupying the White House does, but I do think our people are looking for someone who can make them feel better during these extremely tough times,” said Rep. Val Demings of Florida, whom Biden is considering as a running mate. “America just needs to be reassured that there’s someone who’s understanding, someone who’s willing to say, ‘Yes, we do have some issues,’ and someone who’s willing to address it.”
Reassurance requires presence, though, and that has been a hurdle for the former vice president, driven inside by the coronavirus pandemic, still working to adapt to the power of social media as a substitute and without the natural platform of a public office.
There are some signs that Biden is looking to take on a more active role. On Sunday, his campaign released a photo of him visiting the site of protests in Wilmington. Biden, wearing a mask to protect from COVID-19, knelt down to talk to a man and a young child.
“The only way to bear this pain is to turn all that anguish to purpose,” Biden wrote in a message attached to the photo. “And as President, I will help lead this conversation — and more importantly, I will listen.”
On Monday, Biden plans to venture out again to meet with community leaders in Wilmington.
Demings said she has also offered to have discussions with the Biden campaign on criminal justice reforms. She's pushed for a major Justice Department review of law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and said she saw a role for the federal government in implementing standard policies that govern hiring, training, retention and pay and benefits for law enforcement officers.
“What I have done is offer my service to the campaign and, and anyone else, to look at what we can do working together moving forward. And so we’ll see. We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “We’re going to discuss ideas and make recommendations.”
Biden released a criminal justice reform plan last July, but has not issued an updated or more specific proposal since then. In early May, he released his “Plan for Black America,” an economic- and education-focused agenda that included marijuana decriminalization.
Much of Biden's campaign strategy centers on trying to draw a contrast with Trump on temperament and values. He's called the White House contest a battle for the soul of the nation and has been particularly forceful in condemning Trump's handling of moments of racial tension.
Democrats believe the former vice president draws a contrast with Trump in such moments that works in his favor. They note that while Biden didn't appear on television all weekend, he spoke about Floyd's death before Trump addressed it and has shown compassion for the protesters. Trump has alternated between expressing alarm over Floyd's death and sympathy for his family and issuing tweets antagonizing protesters and disparaging his political enemies.
And in an election that is likely to be a referendum on the sitting president, some Biden aides say privately that the best plan may be to let Trump do himself in.
Yet there is also a recognition that Biden needs to do more than simply wait for voters who may be turned off by Trump to turn toward him. And some Democrats who have criticized Biden in the past for not being more visible during the onset of the coronavirus said he is making the right moves now.
“I’m sure they have some reluctance, understandably, right now to politicize it. That's not who he is," said Democratic strategist James Carville. “There might be a time for eloquence, but I think that simplicity is eloquence right now.”