The “Sleepy Joe” thing isn’t working.
So the Trump team is struggling to figure out how to rebrand Biden.
“‘Sleepy’ is backfiring and hurting Donald Trump,” Ari Fleischer told the Washington Post, adding: “‘Sleepy’ connotes calm. It connotes quiet.”
One unnamed person involved in the discussions told Axios that “you’re not going to make Joe Biden hated personally. You can’t do it through personality.” Instead, this source said, they have to argue that a vote for Biden “is really a vote for his radical left-wing puppet masters.”
Can that work?
The president has already road-tested this theme, telling Sean Hannity last week that “whether you like it or not, he’s shot. The radical left is going to take him over.”
While Biden is a full-throated liberal who’s never excited the Democratic base, he has resisted left-wing pressure to back Medicare for All and defunding the police. So the Trumpian approach would be to tar Biden with the most extreme positions of his supporters.
One major difference between Biden and Hillary Clinton is that the former first lady, attacked by conservatives for decades, was viewed by many voters in 2016 as chilly, calculating and inauthentic. Even Biden’s worst critics concede that he is a warm and empathetic backslapper, and that image is fixed in the public’s mind after his nearly half century as a senator and vice president.
If Biden is depicted as weak, some voters might grow concerned that the AOC wing of the party would be in charge. That’s why Trump pounds away at law and order, riots, toppled statues, Confederate monuments, Seattle’s autonomous zone–pushing the notion that the country would spin out of control without his strong hand at the White House.
The flip side, of course, is that many suburban, independent and female voters have been turned off by his handling of race relations and the coronavirus crisis.
What has emerged as the foundation of Biden’s strategy is the art of lying low. “Trump strategists have responded by all but pleading with Biden to do more and implying his muted schedule is nefarious,” the Post says. The campaign has posted such Facebook ads as “Why has Biden vanished?”
He hasn’t exactly disappeared; on Tuesday he slammed Trump over COVID-19 and unveiled his own plan in a Wilmington speech (which was leaked in advance to the Post). But he makes such forays about once a week.
Many Democrats now embrace the Biden-in-the-basement approach. They look at polls showing the Delaware Democrat with leads ranging from 8 to 14 points, ahead in most battleground states, and see little reason to change.
No matter what the issue, candidate Trump gets about 90 percent of the media coverage, and Biden perhaps 1 percent. This fuels the preferred Biden narrative, that the election is a referendum on Trump, rather than about Joe’s agenda or his gaffes.
The press, for its part, generally salutes political success.
“The result is an odd moment in presidential politics,” says the Post, “when the typical campaign physics appear to have been reversed. The candidate with better television ratings, the bigger campaign apparatus and a larger megaphone is watching his approval ratings fall while the candidate that fewer Americans hear from or see has been expanding his lead in head-to-head national polls. Less is more, for the moment at least.”
But here’s the rub. Another media obsession is access, or lack thereof. Trump, for all of his bitter battles with the Fourth Estate, is the most accessible president in history. Biden as a candidate, not so much.
In June, according to the Post’s own story, Trump granted 21 interviews with news outlets and took questions from White House reporters at least six more times. Biden allowed only five interviews, and answered zero questions on the record from the reporters who cover him.
And yet there is little to no protest from journalists who generally insist that candidates have a responsibility to face the press.
Biden did take about a dozen questions from reporters after his Wilmington remarks Tuesday. That enabled him to make news on the story about Russia allegedly paying bounties for the deaths of American soldiers in Afghanistan, suggesting Trump may be guilty of “dereliction of duty.”
As for his virtual campaign, Biden said: “I started off with the premise I’m going to follow the doc’s orders.” It makes sense for him to be cautious because of the coronavirus. “I’d much rather be out there with people because that’s where I get the greatest feel,” he said.
There’s nothing stopping Biden from using his basement studio to do more interviews or field questions from his press corps. You can’t blame politicians for doing what’s in their self-interest, in this case adopting a low-risk strategy that amounts to Biden sitting on his lead.
But Tuesday was a good first step. Biden should make interviews and news conferences a regular fixture of his candidacy, if only to demonstrate that he’s up to the job.