Joe Biden’s speech Thursday afternoon on his plan for the coronavirus pandemic should not have been a remarkable speech. The delivery was adequate. The content was largely in line with what nonpartisan public health officials have been recommending: things like instructing Americans to stay away from large gatherings and proposing measures to surge the country’s testing capabilities.
The overall idea of the speech wasn’t to describe an initiative Biden would implement next January, if elected. It was to draw a contrast with President Trump by showing what he would be doing differently than the current administration if he were president right now.
And indeed, the comparison between Biden’s speech on coronavirus and Trump’s Wednesday night address could not be more revealing.
The president’s comments skated over key issues (like testing) and inaccurately described the details of his (largely point-missing) 30-day ban on travel from Europe. Key details in speech, like the Europe travel ban’s applicability to trade and American citizens, were either confused or outright misstated in the speech.
Biden’s speech was adequate (as was a similar speech delivered by Bernie Sanders later in the day). The juxtaposition exposed just how fundamentally inadequate our president is to the crisis we find ourselves in.
Biden projected coronavirus competence. Trump projected defensiveness.
The United States is currently in the midst of a scandalous shortfall in coronavirus tests. The US has tested, by some reports, about as many people in total as South Korea tests in a single day, an inexcusable pace that makes it much harder to figure out who needs to be quarantined to prevent the disease’s rapid spread.
Biden proposed an all-out mobilization to increase testing, including specific policies like constructing hundreds of new mobile testing centers. Nearly as telling as the policy itself was the framing. Biden made clear testing was a top priority, something the government needs to address immediately. The goal was not merely to outline good public health measures, but also to convey to the public that Biden, if president, would understand the urgency of the testing crisis and has a plan for handling it:
The White House should measure and report each day, each and every day, how many tests have been ordered, how many tests have been completed, and how many have tested positive. By next week, the number of tests should be in the millions, not the thousands. We should make every person in a nursing home available for testing. Every senior center or vulnerable population has to have easy access to the test and we should establish hundreds of mobile testing sites.
At least ten per state and drive-through testing centers to speed testing and protect the health of our workers. The CDC private labs, universities and manufacturers should be working lockstep to get this done and get it done correctly. No effort should be spared, none. No excuses should be made. Tests should be available to all who need them. And the government, the government should stop at nothing to make that happen.
On Wednesday night, Trump provided no specific explanation of what he’s doing to increase testing capabilities and simply asserted that testing capabilities are improving when everyone knows they’re disastrous. Worse, he then went on to tell Americans that their individual risk of contracting the virus is very low — when, due to the testing shortfall, we don’t have a handle on what their risk actually is:
Additionally, last week, I signed into law an $8.3 billion funding bill to help C.D.C. and other government agencies fight the virus and support vaccines, treatments and distribution of medical supplies. Testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly, day by day. We are moving very quickly.
The vast majority of Americans: The risk is very, very low. Young and healthy people can expect to recover fully and quickly if they should get the virus. The highest risk is for elderly population with underlying health conditions. The elderly population must be very, very careful.
The difference in policy and tone leaps off the page. Rather than proposing concrete improvements, Trump is trying to defend his administration’s approach and convince people that the crisis shouldn’t worry them so much. It’s a public relations exercise dressed up as public health.
You can see the same contrast in the economic sections of their speeches. Biden points out the economic pain from people staying home and major institutions closing will “hit folks who live paycheck to paycheck the hardest. Including working people and seniors.” He then outlines specific areas where people need assistance, like replacing school lunch and providing support in paying rent after being laid off, and proposes some policies that could help mitigate the costs:
It’s a national disgrace that millions of our fellow citizens don’t have a single day of paid sick leave available to them. We need both a permanent plan for paid sick leave and an emergency plan for everyone who needs it due to the outbreak now. Beyond these national measures, my plan also calls for the creation of a state, local emergency fund to make sure governors, mayors and local leaders who are battling the coronavirus on the ground as I speak have the resources necessary to meet this crisis.
Trump, to his credit, did ask Congress to pass a payroll tax relief bill and order the Treasury Department to defer taxes payments “for certain individuals and businesses negatively impacted” by the virus. Yet his proposals were far less ambitious than Biden’s, and were seemingly subordinate to a narrative of Trump’s personal greatness and successes as president.
“Because of the economic policies that we have put into place over the last three years, we have the greatest economy anywhere in the world, by far,” he said. “This vast economic prosperity gives us flexibility, reserves, and resources to handle any threat that comes our way.”
Financial markets didn’t find this persuasive. Futures prices tumbled in the wake of Trump’s speech, and the New York Stock Exchange fell so rapidly on Thursday morning that trading had to be suspended for the second time this week. Clearly, Trump’s proposed economic stabilization measures are not calming the markets.
Trump is not up to the task
Biden’s speech was, of course, a political exercise. The very purpose was to make Trump look bad, and he didn’t have to bear the burden of ensuring the ideas he was outlining get turned into real government policy.
Yet at least Biden was clear on what he wanted to do and why. Trump, by contrast, confused and misled the public on his signature new policy: a radical new ban on European travel.
In his address last night, he stated clearly that the US would be suspending not only personal travel from Europe, but also the flow of goods to the United States.
“We will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” he said. “These prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval.”
Given how much the US imports from European nations, the idea of a shutdown seemed likely to severely exacerbate the already significant economic consequences of the pandemic. Swiftly afterward, the White House released a fact sheet saying that wouldn’t be the case — and Trump tweeted to contradict what he had explicitly stated:
Hoping to get the payroll tax cut approved by both Republicans and Democrats, and please remember, very important for all countries & businesses to know that trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe. The restriction stops people not goods.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2020
The European travel ban was the centerpiece of Trump’s speech. Unlike Biden, whose speech was largely devoted to solving concrete problems of community spread in the United States and economic downturn, Trump spent much of his speech scapegoating Europe for the “foreign virus” — selling xenophobia as a solution for an illness that is, currently, being spread from American to American in areas around the country.
It’s not just that Trump’s speech was defensive and self-aggrandizing. It’s that it was also wildly wrong in its focus on the threat from foreign national transmission, and utterly incompetent in its execution of its key policy on that misplaced area of attention.
Of course, incompetence, self-aggrandizement, and xenophobia are some of Trump’s key traits. The speech reflected who the president was, right down to its reported authors — anti-immigrant adviser Stephen Miller and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The polish in Biden’s speech, by contrast, seemed to reflect the fact that one of his top advisers, Ron Klain, ran point on the Obama administration’s successful response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
The point is not that Biden is unique, the only person capable of delivering a credibly presidential speech on this issue. Bernie Sanders did the same thing later on Thursday.
Rather, it’s that we currently have a president who can’t clear this very low bar.