What’s Joe Biden’s Response to Coronavirus? Even He Doesn’t Seem Sure.

Biden’s coronavirus response plan doesn’t just fall short—it also doesn’t match what he’s been telling the public.

Branko Marcetic March 30, 2020

Why is Joe Biden putting out disparate messages on how to deal with coronavirus? (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Joe Biden needs two things to beat Trump in a gen­er­al elec­tion: to win over young peo­ple, and to devel­op an effec­tive and con­sis­tent response to the cur­rent coro­n­avirus cri­sis. He’s fail­ing on both.

At best, it creates the impression Biden isn’t aware of what's in his own plan; at worst, it makes him appear to be cynically adopting multiple positions.

Through­out his infre­quent pub­lic appear­ances over the last few weeks — at his March 12 press con­fer­ence and the March 15 Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, for instance — Biden has tend­ed to avoid out­lin­ing spe­cif­ic pro­pos­als for deal­ing with the coro­n­avirus cri­sis. Instead, he points peo­ple to Joe​biden​.com, to read the near­ly 7,000-word plan his cam­paign first released weeks ago. Even the release of an updat­ed plan on March 26 has not ade­quate­ly made his approach clear.

With­in the first five min­utes of his major March 23 address, his first pub­lic appear­ance in near­ly a week while the cri­sis wors­ened, Biden direct­ed view­ers to read that very detailed, in-depth plan,” opt­ing to talk about only a few aspects of it. When jok­ing­ly asked by talk show host Jim­my Kim­mel on March 26 if he had thought about call­ing Trump to advise him, Biden replied that all kid­ding aside,” the two-week-old plan had laid out in detail what I thought had to be done.”

In oth­er words, Biden clear­ly views this plan as essen­tial for under­stand­ing how he plans to respond to the cri­sis should he win the pres­i­den­cy. And yet there are numer­ous dis­crep­an­cies between the plan and what Biden’s been telling audiences.

Take the Defense Pro­duc­tion Act, the Kore­an War-era law that allows the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to direct the pro­duc­tion of essen­tial resources by the pri­vate sec­tor dur­ing emer­gen­cies. Biden has urged Trump to use it to rad­i­cal­ly increase the sup­ply of crit­i­cal goods need­ed to treat patients and pro­tect our health­care work­ers and first respon­ders,” and build a med­ical arse­nal.” On Tues­day, he told MSNBC he had called for its use a while ago,” and told CNN that it should’ve been enact­ed months ago,” and that he called on Trump to enact it two, three weeks ago.” Lay­ing out his detailed plan” to Kim­mel, Biden said that for exam­ple, I call for the Defense Pro­duc­tion Act to be used,” before trail­ing off, seem­ing­ly unable to recall oth­er specifics.

Biden is right that Trump has dithered on using the wartime law, invok­ing the act but declin­ing, for explic­it­ly ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons, to use it to direct pri­vate-sec­tor pro­duc­tion. But Biden’s push for its use appears to be a rel­a­tive­ly recent strategy.

The Defense Pro­duc­tion Act wasn’t men­tioned in the first ver­sion of Biden’s plan, which instead talked about work[ing] with busi­ness­es to expand pro­duc­tion of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment” and to incen­tivize greater sup­pli­er pro­duc­tion of these crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant med­ical­ly [sic] sup­plies.” In fact, Biden first called on Trump to invoke it only on March 18, 19 days after Health and Human Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Alex Azar first float­ed the idea and min­utes after Trump had already announced he was par­tial­ly invok­ing it. (Demo­c­ra­t­ic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders only just beat Biden, call­ing for the law’s invo­ca­tion on March 17).

Biden is also send­ing mixed sig­nals on how far he is will­ing to go in terms of gov­ern­ment spend­ing. A life­long deficit hawk who vot­ed for a bal­anced bud­get con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment three years in a row, Biden’s plan nonethe­less states he believes we must spend what­ev­er it takes, with­out delay, to meet pub­lic health needs and deal with the mount­ing eco­nom­ic con­se­quences,” a line he repeat­ed in his March 12 speech. Though the plan doesn’t spec­i­fy the cost of any of its pro­pos­als, these lines seem to imply a rejec­tion of peace­time spend­ing lim­its in the face of an emergency.

Yet Biden has since giv­en a dif­fer­ent impres­sion. Speak­ing about a pos­si­ble Main Street bailout pack­age a few days lat­er at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, Biden said that the prob­lem is, the poli­cies of this admin­is­tra­tion eco­nom­i­cal­ly have … we’ve eat­en a lot of our seed corn here. The abil­i­ty for us to use levers that were avail­able before have been used up by this godaw­ful tax cut of $1.9 trillion.”

Last Mon­day, Biden called for keep[ing] every­one paid through this cri­sis … while still pro­tect­ing the Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers.” Such lan­guage doesn’t sug­gest the kind of lim­it­less spend­ing in the face of cri­sis promised in his plan. And while a Biden admin­is­tra­tion could con­ceiv­ably give itself more room to maneu­ver by rais­ing tax­es, Biden has reject­ed the wealth tax­es favored by Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren and plans to bring in six times less rev­enue than either of them.

It’s also not exact­ly clear what form of eco­nom­ic assis­tance Biden is envi­sion­ing. In his pub­lic appear­ances, Biden tends to speak in gen­er­al­i­ties. In his March 12 speech, he called for imme­di­ate bold mea­sures to help Amer­i­cans who are hurt­ing eco­nom­i­cal­ly,” and relief that will be large in scale focused on broad­er health and sta­bil­i­ty of our econ­o­my.” We should be doing every­thing in our pow­er to keep work­ers on pay­rolls, make small busi­ness­es health­i­er, help the econ­o­my come out on the oth­er side strong,” he said last Mon­day, call­ing for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to pro­vide the resources to make that hap­pen.” The gov­ern­ment should take care of those peo­ple who are in des­per­ate need now,” he told MSNBC, lat­er reit­er­at­ing to CNN’s Jake Tap­per that the gov­ern­ment make sure that they are not going with­out the eco­nom­ic means that are nec­es­sary to keep their house­holds moving.”

When he did drill down to specifics, Biden ini­tial­ly called for emer­gency expan­sion of paid sick leave and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, in addi­tion to per­ma­nent paid sick leave. But as the scale of the cri­sis has grown, he seems to have become more vocal about bold­er mea­sures. We have to put a freeze on evic­tions, we got­ta put a freeze on mort­gage pay­ments,” he told The View on March 24, adding that the gov­ern­ment rush monies to peo­ple and small busi­ness­es and oth­ers that need it now.” Cash relief needs to go out as fast as pos­si­ble to those who need it the most,” he said a day earlier.

Yet cash pay­ments have bare­ly fea­tured in Biden’s plan. Their only men­tion is in the sec­tion cov­er­ing Biden’s State and Local Emer­gency Fund, a fund of inde­ter­mi­nate size that gives may­ors and gov­er­nors, not the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, the flex­i­bil­i­ty” to decide how to respond to the crisis.

Where gov­er­nors and may­ors deter­mine it is nec­es­sary to ade­quate­ly address the full range of eco­nom­ic pain cre­at­ed by the COVID-19, the fund will autho­rize such lead­ers to direct­ly draw on it to imple­ment broad­er pro­gres­sive cash or tax relief,” the plan states. That could include cash pay­ments to work­ing fam­i­lies, unpaid care­givers, seniors, those with dis­abil­i­ties, and chil­dren, or a child allowance. It could also be used to fund new leg­is­la­tion to expand State Earned Income Tax Cred­it relief.”

In oth­er words, under a Biden pres­i­den­cy, state and local gov­ern­ments can decide whether they want to send checks to fam­i­lies, which peo­ple they think deserve to get this mon­ey, or if they’d pre­fer to just turn the mon­ey into tax break instead — and even then, only if they deter­mine it necessary.”

On the oth­er hand, Biden is sup­port­ing the coro­n­avirus emer­gency bill that has been the sub­ject of days of con­gres­sion­al wran­gling, includ­ing its pro­vi­sions of direct checks of $1,200 per Amer­i­can mak­ing less than $75,000 a year, and $500 per child. Biden has cau­tioned that it’s not every­thing that I would want,” and indeed, these pro­vi­sions have come under heavy crit­i­cism from pro­gres­sives. Not only does the bureau­cra­cy involved mean the pay­ments will come far too late for many fam­i­lies, but the means-test­ed, one-time sum of $1,200 falls far short of the pro­pos­als for uni­ver­sal pay­ments of $2,000 a month per fam­i­ly for the dura­tion of the cri­sis, $1,000 a month per Amer­i­can until a year after the cri­sis is over fol­low­ing an ini­tial pay­ment of $2,000, and $2,000 a month per adult and $1,000 per child, all respec­tive­ly pro­posed by pro­gres­sives like Sanders, Rep. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑MI), and Rep. Max­ine Waters (D‑CA).

Does Biden pre­fer a larg­er pay­ment? If so, how much larg­er? Would it be means-test­ed or uni­ver­sal? Would it be a one-time check or con­tin­u­ous? How does he feel about the poten­tial­ly months-long delay involved? And does he still pre­fer to devolve pow­er to state and local gov­ern­ments to dis­trib­ute this money?

Biden him­self hasn’t clar­i­fied. His defend­ers say he’s try­ing not to step on Democ­rats’ toes dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions; yet as the prospec­tive nom­i­nee, not only is he meant to be set­ting the party’s agen­da, but he should also be putting for­ward ideas that will com­pete against Trump come the gen­er­al elec­tion, who has improb­a­bly rid­den his cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly bun­gled response to the cri­sis to his best-ever approval rat­ings.

Biden’s approach to mort­gages and evic­tions faces sim­i­lar con­fu­sion. Con­trary to his state­ment on The View, there is no evic­tion freeze laid out in Biden’s plan. Rather, he leaves it up to gov­er­nors and may­ors to draw on the Emer­gency Fund to imple­ment rental assis­tance, no-inter­est for­bear­ance or mort­gage pay­ment relief.”

There is an added risk to Biden’s del­e­ga­tion of respon­si­bil­i­ty to may­ors and gov­er­nors when it comes to cash pay­ments, and rent and mort­gage relief. Such dis­cre­tion poten­tial­ly puts mil­lions of Amer­i­cans at the mer­cy of con­ser­v­a­tive, sci­ence-deny­ing gov­ern­ments at the state and local lev­el, who may pre­fer not to give what they see as hand­outs to work­ers they believe should be risk­ing their lives and going to work. These are gov­ern­ments like that of Mis­sis­sip­pi Gov. Tate Reeves, who recent­ly reject­ed calls to lock down his state amidst ris­ing Covid-19 cas­es because Mississippi’s nev­er going to be Chi­na.” Or they may be one of the 14 states that have still not expand­ed Med­ic­aid since the pas­sage of the Afford­able Care Act ten years ago.

Biden’s Sec­ond Plan

Biden’s team has since released an addi­tion­al plan on March 26, this one focused on how to save our econ­o­my and help our fam­i­lies weath­er the storm.” Lead­ing with the Defense Pro­duc­tion Act, it’s a three-point pro­pos­al whose sec­ond plank is a task force to impose over­sight on the relief mon­ey being spent by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, and the third bring[ing] the lead­ers of Con­gress togeth­er to build the next deal.”

There are appeal­ing specifics in the campaign’s new plan. It calls for Biden’s scaled-back stu­dent loan for­give­ness, and an increase of Social Secu­ri­ty checks by $200 a month, a con­crete num­ber attached to his platform’s vow to increase ben­e­fits for old­er Amer­i­cans. But these are not new ideas for the Biden team. His demands for emer­gency paid sick leave, free coro­n­avirus test­ing and treat­ment and a free vac­cine are like­wise reit­er­a­tions of demands made in the first plan.

Like the first ver­sion of the plan, Biden con­tin­ues to encour­age work-shar­ing,” an Oba­ma-era pol­i­cy cham­pi­oned by left-lean­ing think-tanks like the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress and the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research. Broad­ly speak­ing, the pol­i­cy incen­tivizes employ­ers to keep work­ers on their pay­rolls by reduc­ing work hours, help­ing to keep unem­ploy­ment rates low. The idea only gets one brief line in the lat­est iter­a­tion, how­ev­er. It’s also unclear how much of an impact it would have in the cur­rent cri­sis, when mil­lions are los­ing jobs because many busi­ness­es aren’t phys­i­cal­ly able to stay open for pub­lic health reasons.

Biden’s oth­er demands through­out this lat­est plan are sim­i­lar­ly vague. They include addi­tion­al checks to fam­i­lies should con­di­tions require” on top of the one-time $1,200 pay­ment passed by Con­gress, with­out any detail beyond that. The plan promis­es to cut through the red tape” to deliv­er unem­ploy­ment insur­ance with­out delay,” but with state unem­ploy­ment web­sites crash­ing across the coun­try, it doesn’t spec­i­fy how. Biden would would tell large com­pa­nies seek­ing tax­pay­er assis­tance that they need to make hard com­mit­ments” not to mis­use that mon­ey, the plan tells us, and oth­er­wise hold the strictest line on bans on buy­backs and rais­es for exec­u­tives,” impose the high­est scruti­ny on pay­roll plans,” and not let com­pa­nies off the hook.”

What that means in prac­tice is left up to the reader’s imagination.

While final­ly includ­ing the Defense Pro­duc­tion Act that was left out of the orig­i­nal, there are still things miss­ing. Through promis­ing all nec­es­sary fis­cal relief to states,” the plan doesn’t clar­i­fy if Biden is stick­ing by his orig­i­nal idea of let­ting state and local gov­ern­ments decide how to bail out work­ing Amer­i­cans. Nor does it make any men­tion of the evic­tion freeze Biden has tout­ed in interviews.

Since its release, Biden has again got­ten ahead of his own plan in inter­views. In a CNN town hall last Fri­day, asked by a view­er about a rent freeze, Biden said he would freeze it and for­give it,” cit­ing the time span of at least the next three months.” Asked by Ander­son Coop­er if he would sup­port mora­to­ri­ums on util­i­ty shut-offs, he answered: Absolute­ly. I’d do it nation­wide.” Nei­ther a rent freeze nor a util­i­ty shut-off mora­to­ri­um appears in either of Biden’s plans so far. The cam­paign made sure to add Biden’s recent call for for­giv­ing at least $10,000 in stu­dent debt into his lat­est plan; why hasn’t it done so for these policies?

Adding to the con­fu­sion, Biden hasn’t ref­er­enced his March 26 pro­pos­al in any of the pub­lic appear­ances he’s done since its release. In fact, the day it came out, he was still refer­ring Jim­my Kim­mel to his orig­i­nal, two-week-old plan. With dis­crep­an­cies between the two, as well as with Biden’s own pub­lic state­ments, it’s not clear where a pub­lic won­der­ing what Biden would do as pres­i­dent should be looking.

Lag­ging behind

Much of this points to a larg­er prob­lem that Biden’s cam­paign will need to over­come to both estab­lish itself as a leader on the coro­n­avirus response, as well as win over young vot­ers. From the begin­ning, Biden has lagged behind the party’s lead­ing pro­gres­sive and youth-ori­ent­ed voic­es, and even some Repub­li­cans. When Biden was only call­ing for emer­gency paid sick leave, Sanders was already call­ing for a mora­to­ri­um on evic­tions, fore­clo­sures and util­i­ty shut-offs.

The cash pay­ment pro­pos­al Biden backs falls far short of pro­gres­sive demands. He hasn’t gone near­ly as far as Waters, for instance, who is call­ing for a sus­pen­sion of all cred­it pay­ments (includ­ing cred­it cards and per­son­al loans), cred­it report­ing, debt col­lec­tion and repossession.

And while his plan calls for elim­i­nat­ing cost bar­ri­ers for pre­ven­tion of and care for COVID-19,” he hasn’t gone as far as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑MN), who is call­ing for all pri­vate hos­pi­tals to be tem­porar­i­ly nation­al­ized as has been done in Spain and Ire­land, or Sanders, who is call­ing for emer­gency uni­ver­sal health care for the dura­tion of the cri­sis. Both pro­pos­als are vital at a time when job­less claims rose more than 3 mil­lion in the space of a week, mean­ing poten­tial­ly mil­lions of Amer­i­cans were thrown off their health insur­ance — a prob­lem nei­ther Biden’s plan nor Biden him­self is yet offer­ing a solu­tion to.

Biden’s inabil­i­ty to respond to this par­tic­u­lar issue was shown in CNN’s town hall. A view­er who was like­ly infect­ed with coro­n­avirus com­plained about the lack of avail­abil­i­ty of test­ing and described her strug­gles with the pri­vate insur­ance sys­tem: her small employ­er didn’t pro­vide health ben­e­fits, so she paid $2,000 a month for insur­ance. She won­dered what she would do when her sav­ings final­ly ran out.

Biden’s response, while assert­ing she should not have to sac­ri­fice any­thing,” entire­ly skipped over her dilem­ma: He told her three times that test­ing should be free, said she would be cov­ered by the expand­ed unem­ploy­ment insur­ance in the lat­est coro­n­avirus bill, and called for Repub­li­cans to drop their law­suit against Oba­macare. When Coop­er point­ed out mass lay-offs also meant the loss of health insur­ance for many, Biden con­tin­ued to tout his pub­lic option plan that pre­serves employ­er insur­ance, which he assert­ed would cost close to a bil­lion dol­lars” — $749 bil­lion less than the esti­mate from his own cam­paign.

The Biden cam­paign did not respond to an emailed list of ques­tions seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion on all of these matters.

A pro­gres­sive response

The Biden cam­paign should clar­i­fy its candidate’s stances on mat­ters like cash pay­ments and evic­tion and rent freezes, and rec­on­cile the dif­fer­ences between the two plans it’s put out. As is, the gulf between Biden’s pub­lic state­ments and the con­tent of the plan he con­tin­ues direct­ing peo­ple to read is con­fus­ing — and that’s not even includ­ing the addi­tion of a sec­ond plan. At best, it cre­ates the impres­sion Biden isn’t aware of what’s in his own plan; at worst, it makes him appear to be cyn­i­cal­ly adopt­ing mul­ti­ple positions.

Sec­ond­ly, if Biden wants to win over young vot­ers, the best way to do that is to sin­cere­ly adopt the ideas being pushed by the politi­cians most pop­u­lar among them, such as Sanders, Tlaib and Omar. A watered-down stu­dent debt for­give­ness plan isn’t going to cut it, and nei­ther will vir­tu­al round­ta­bles whose func­tion is to make Biden seem relat­able, with a few words of sym­pa­thy for the strug­gles fac­ing young peo­ple thrown in.

But to do this, Biden will have to com­pro­mise his career-long aver­sion to big-spend­ing gov­ern­ment pro­grams. Just as he became more and more a believ­er in bal­anced bud­gets” over the course of the 1970s and 1980s due to that era’s shift in pol­i­tics, Biden must now catch up as pol­i­tics moves rapid­ly in the oppo­site direc­tion. He must aban­don his career-long war on gov­ern­ment spend­ing and fed­er­al pro­grams, and embrace big gov­ern­ment and deficit spend­ing. Doing so can make him appear both a leader in this cri­sis, and win over the young vot­ers he so des­per­ate­ly needs. The ques­tion is, after a life­time of doing the oppo­site, and a year of court­ing well-heeled donors, can he bring him­self to do it?

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH