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Joe Biden’s message on coronavirus: It’s time to tell the unvarnished truth

“We should be telling the American people the truth. They’re strong. They’ll get through it.”

Biden appears sober, brightly lit by stage lights, in a dark suit and red tie. He stands at a podium in front of a row of US flags.
Former Vice President Joe Biden delivers an address on the coronavirus in March 2020.
Michael Brochstein/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s appearance on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd on NBC Sunday morning was — to anyone who follows Sunday morning political interview shows — borderline surreal.

Due to coronavirus concerns, both the host and his marquee guest were broadcasting from home studios, delivering production values that fell short of usual for network television. Satellite transmission lags clearly marred the dialogue at key moments, and while Biden avoided any gaffes, he repeatedly stumbled over words or shifted directions mid-sentence — reminders that for all he’s ridden the Obama legacy to front-runner status, he’s not even close to his former boss’s equal as a public communicator.

But the former vice president had a clear double-barreled message to deliver to President Donald Trump and the American people.

First, the president should listen to qualified scientific and economic experts about Covid-19, and second, the president should accurately convey what they are telling him to the American people. No more happy talk, no more wishful thinking: Just a serious effort to prepare the public for what’s likely to be a prolonged experience and to mobilize the resources of the federal government to alleviate that trauma with wider use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) and additional fiscal stimulus beyond what Congress has already enacted.

“We should be telling the American people the truth”

The interview’s key moment came when Todd said scientists believe it may take until June before the United States is in a position to start relaxing social distancing measures.

“You’re certainly hearing scientists say that and an occasional governor will say that, Dr. Fauci might say that,” Todd observed. “But you don’t hear a consistent message nationally. How would you convey that to the American people, basically telling them, another 60 days of home confinement? That’s a lot to ask of the American public.”

Biden did not exactly muster a level of eloquence to match Winston Churchill’s famous “blood, toil, sweat, and tears” speech, but he did have a clear and compelling answer: Tell the truth and trust the people rather than raising unrealistic expectations that inevitably won’t be met, and that could provoke a crisis of confidence in the government and its officials:

Look, the American public is really strong and tough. The first thing we should do is listen to the scientists. Secondly, we should tell them the truth. The unvarnished truth. The American people have never shied away from being able to deal with the truth. The worst thing you can do is raise false expectations and watch them get dashed. Then they begin to lose confidence in the leadership. So we should just tell the truth as best we know it. As best the scientists know it. We should let them speak.

Biden then repeated his call for the president to set free market dogma aside and invoke the Defense Production Act to broadly scale-up production of personal protective equipment and other health care supplies before returning to this theme of honesty.

“We should be telling the American people the truth,” he said. “They’re strong. They’ll get through it.”

This is a strong contrast to Trump’s approach, which owes less to the historic legacy of statesmanship than to sales and marketing tactics or the self-help tips of The Power of Positive Thinking. Trump prefers not only to put a positive spin on his administration’s handling of things, but on the overall situation — touting the possibility of returning to normal by Easter and promoting the scientifically unproven idea that hydoxychloroquine is a remarkably effective treatment for Covid-19.

There is obviously a lot of uncertainty about the coronavirus situation, and it’s certainly possible that the country — and the world — will benefit from upside surprises or technological breakthroughs. But Biden’s argument is that it’s a mistake to count on such things because they leave the country both materially and psychologically unprepared for the extent of the difficulties it may be facing.

Biden’s prescription: More mobilization and more stimulus

Todd tried a couple of times to entice Biden into delivering a quote-worthy slam on Trump, or to elicit praise for the president in the interest of national unity. Biden didn’t bite in either direction.

For instance, the former vice president declined Todd’s invitation to say Trump has “blood on his hands” but also refused to say he would eschew criticizing the president.

“I argued several weeks ago, we should be using the Defense Production Act,” Biden said. “It was there, I have been arguing for it for some time. If I see something that’s not happening, I think it’s my obligation to step up and say this is what we should be doing.”

Beyond the idea of using the DPA to increase output of medical supplies, Biden spoke repeatedly about the need for additional stimulus beyond what Congress and the White House have already delivered. He didn’t get into details on the show, but his campaign has called for responding to the coronavirus pandemic with student loan forgiveness, a boost to Social Security benefits, fiscal transfers to state and local governments, more comprehensive action on paid sick leave, and taking a look at delivering additional checks to households beyond the $1,200 per person Congress has already enacted.

Rather than promising people that the country will swiftly get back to normal, in other words, Biden wants the government to roll up its sleeves and prepare to do more.

Biden’s found his voice on Covid-19

Biden’s final advice to Trump was to spend more time focused on the administrative details of government.

“You should focus on making sure we’re in a situation where we’re able to see to it that unemployment benefits can get to people,” Biden said. “What is the IRS doing to get the $1,200 checks to people? That’s where the focus should be and it should be laser-focused.”

The reference here is to administrative problems in the unemployment insurance system, which is not really built to handle the current volume of claims as well as to the reality that the government currently anticipates it may take months to get the $1,200 into the hands of people who don’t already have direct deposit setups with the IRS. This kind of administrative minutia has never been Trump’s strong suit (see the testing fiasco) and it seems very unlikely that he’ll take this advice.

But for those who’ve been waiting for Biden to become a more forceful and visible public presence on the coronavirus crisis, he seems to have found his message — listen to experts, tell the truth about what they say, and put in the difficult, granular work to address the crisis.