The eight-month run-up to the US presidential elections will be turbulent. People will demand a president who knows how to fight but also to heal, writes Bette Browne
US President Donald Trump and former Democratic vice president Joe Biden are gearing up for the fiercest fight of their political lives amid a brutal pandemic that could shatter either man’s White House dreams.
Both of them have been anticipating this match-up for some time, long before the coronavirus was unleashed.
The tone was set back in 2018 after a video showed Trump boasting he could assault women because he was famous.
Biden immediately pounced, declaring he was ready to “beat the hell” out of him, while Trump countered that Biden would “go down fast and hard, crying all the way”.
Now the fight is for real as Biden, the great-grandson of an Irishman, all but locked up his candidacy on March 17 with another round of victories, doubling his delegate count over rival Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic nomination race to face Trump in the November election.
Trump has already clinched the Republican nomination.
For all his bravado about taking on Biden, however, Trump is known to fear facing the former vice president so much that he was impeached in December 2019 for asking Ukraine to investigate Biden.
“He’s even risked his presidency because he does not want to face me,” Biden declared.
Sanders was the president’s preferred choice and he took to calling the Vermont Senator a “crazy Socialist”. But such characterisation won’t work against the moderate Biden, who comes to the race with national recognition of his achievements as a senator for over 35 years and a vice president for eight years under Barack Obama.
Indeed, Biden has consistently led Trump in hypothetical head-to-head matchups in national polls.
But Biden’s career has also included two previous failed bids for the White House, in 1988 and 2008, and it’ll take more than luck for him to make it on the third attempt because Trump is preparing for the kind of bare-knuckled contest that Biden has never before faced.
Trump’s strategy is about painting the 77-year old former vice president as a bumbling candidate who lacks the mental acuity to run the country.
Trump, who is himself almost 74, summed up his approach like this on March 3 at a rally in North Carolina:
But the brutal march of the coronavirus could upend that strategy, as more and more Americans say they are dismayed at Trump’s handling of the pandemic in its early stages and are questioning his fitness to guide the country through the crisis.
It would be entirely wrong, of course, to blame Trump for the deadly pandemic.
But in politics, as in life, it is how a leader handles a tragedy that can often matter most.
Practical help matters, unleashing resources matter, but most of all when a crisis grips a nation it immediately puts the spotlight on the true character of the country’s leader. And in this crisis when the spotlight fell on Trump it laid bare his character flaws.
And, unfortunately for the president, Biden had already put the issue of character at the centre of his campaign, characterising it as a battle “for the soul of the nation” and declaring that if Trump won he would “fundamentally alter the character of this nation”.
In his initial reaction to the coronavirus, the president appeared to view it as an inconvenient threat to his battle plan for re-election, which was chiefly predicated on a booming economy.
Early in February, at a time when there were already seven confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, the president told Fox News he had “shut it down”.
But petulant tweets and dismissive words couldn’t halt the deadly progress of the disease.
Neither did the stock market accept rosy falsehoods. And when his tweets and false narratives didn’t work, there was little left for the president to fall back on to calm a fearful nation.
With almost the sole exception of Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the president failed to surround himself with medical and scientific advisers who could assist him in laying out the facts about the virus and its deadly consequences.
His handling of the crisis in its initial stages diminished him and starkly exposed his flaws as the virus relentlessly took hold and Americans waited for leadership.
On February 28, a Fox News poll reported that 62% of voters nationwide were not very confident in the government’s ability to deal effectively with the crisis.
“Public fears are being compounded by pervasive lack of trust in this president,” Biden declared, with some justification. He offered his own plan to combat the crisis and care for its victims and condemned what he called Trump’s “colossal” failure to guarantee citizens access to coronavirus testing.
It should be stressed, that in recent days the president has changed his tune a little. His approach began to change on March 13 when he declared a national emergency, which freed up billions in funding for states to fight the virus, and on March 16 he appeared at a White House news conference in sombre mood as the US death toll climbed relentlessly and impacted all 50 states.
He seemed to have finally grasped the enormity of the crisis. By March 17, his Treasury Secretary was working with Congress on an economic package of almost $2trn to help American businesses and individuals to fight the disease.
Trump’s changed approach appears to be working so far.
An ABC News/IPSOS poll on March 20 indicated that 55% approved of the president’s management of the crisis compared with 43% who disapproved and those numbers were roughly inverted since a similar poll a week earlier.
An Economist/YouGov poll, however, showed a more even split, with 45% approving his handling of the crisis and 46% disapproving. At the same time, the president seems acutely aware that this unfolding global tragedy could derail his presidency unless the pandemic can be tamed as quickly as possible.
“I think there’s a tremendous pent up demand, both in terms of the stock market and in terms of the economy,” he said.
We can only hope that the president is correct and that America and the rest of the world can cope with the horrifying human and economic toll being inflicted by the pandemic.
Now and in the years ahead people will certainly need help. They will be bereaved and they will be grieving. They will need financial help to get their lives moving again and, even more importantly, Americans will need a comforter-in-chief.
So far, however, that is not a role that comes naturally to this president.
It is possible, of course, that this tragedy could profoundly change Trump and he may yet rise to fill that empathetic role. But the evidence tends to suggest otherwise, especially when one compares the characters of these two presidential candidates.
Trump has been shaped by what might be called a “silver spoon” life, while Biden’s has been forged in the school of hard knocks.
Biden once washed windows to help his family pay for school fees, while Trump inherited his millionaire father’s wealth.
But they also share some similarities. Both are in their late 70s and both come from Celtic immigrant stock.
But while Biden embraces his Finnegan forbears and works for US immigration reform, Trump rarely mentions his Scottish-born mother, Mary Ann MacLeod, and has called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals.
Unlike Trump, whose family sent him to an elite military boarding school at the age of 13, Biden’s life followed a very different trajectory.
His father, Joseph Biden, cleaned furnaces and worked as a used car salesman. But when he couldn’t find work after Biden was born and for several years afterwards the family had to move in with Biden’s maternal grandparents, the Finnegans.
His great-grandfather, James Finnegan, emigrated from Louth as a child in 1850.
He’s also said that when he would come home from school in a bad mood because he had been bullied, his mother, Catherine Eugenia ‘Jean’ Finnegan, would tell him: “Bloody their nose so you can walk down the street the next day!”
His adult life was steeled by family tragedy so devastating he once said it made him understand how people can contemplate suicide.
The tragedy that tore his life apart happened in 1972, the year he turned 30 and had just been elected the youngest senator in modern US history.
As Christmas approached that year, his family set off for a day’s shopping. But the young congressman never saw his wife or daughter alive again. His wife Neilia and 13-month-old daughter Naomi were killed in a car accident on December 18, 1972.
In 1977, he met and married Jill Jacobs and went on to become one of the longest-serving senators in the United States before resigning his seat to be Barack Obama’s vice president in 2008, and again in 2012.
When Obama’s term ended in 2016, Biden contemplated running again for the White House but decided against it after the death from cancer of his son, Beau.
The former vice president credits his resilient streak to his Irish background. “Being Irish, without fear of contradiction, has shaped my entire life,” he said at an event in Washington with then taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016.
“In my family, politics wasn’t a dirty word,” he said on another occasion. “It was about righting things that were wrong.”
Trump sees politics differently. If Biden is a political “insider,” Trump is the ultimate “outsider”. He likes to bash politicians, touting the fact that he has no political experience and had never before run for public office before winning the White House.
Instead, his life has been primarily about extending his family wealth.
He became a flamboyant businessman by tapping his talents and ego and emblazoning his name on iconic real estate conquests around the world from Manhattan to Doonbeg, Co Clare.
Indeed, his business skills have served him well in Ireland. In 2014, he bought the Doonbeg golf club and resort for €8.7m, which had been developed at an initial cost of €28m when it opened in 2002.
He has claimed his net worth is over $10bn but in 2018 Forbes estimated it at $3.1bn. Biden and his wife Jill have a net worth of $9m. They earned $15.6m in income between 2017 and 2018 in book royalties and speaking engagements, according to financial disclosures.
Where Biden was driven by a desire to give back to society, his supporters say, much of Trump’s record of personal promotion and wealth accumulation has sometimes been at the expense of others’ misfortune.
In 2008, during the looming housing collapse in America, for example, he said he was hoping for a crash from which he could benefit. “I sort of hope that happens because then people like me would go in and buy,” he said.
The economic collapse that’s almost certain to follow the coronavirus, however, will leave only tragedy in its wake. And when it’s all over America will have a new president forged by that terrible tragedy. Much healing will need to be done.
As Biden declared, the people want “a president who not only knows how to fight but knows how to heal”. He is undoubtedly correct and whichever candidate can fill both roles will triumph.
In the turbulent eight months between now and the November election, however, much can happen to impact the fortunes of Joe Biden and Donald Trump — for better or worse.