Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate was wise. Harris checks nearly all of the boxes Biden needs to round out his ticket and still appeal to progressives, independents and disillusioned Republicans.
As a woman of Jamaican and South Asian heritage, Harris brings a number of firsts to the campaign. And, at 55, she represents a younger generation than Biden — or President Trump, for that matter. In addition, Harris is both liberal and tough, and has shown herself to be an effective advocate.
But Harris is not the Democrats’ presidential nominee. Yet there is speculation that Biden is going to stay removed from more active campaign activity and rely heavily on Harris’ energy, sharp mind and charisma. That would be a mistake. Harris cannot be the primary spokesperson for the ticket. While her support is essential, and her involvement will be helpful, voters need to see, hear and feel fully engaged with Biden, the presidential candidate. Voters need to be exposed to Biden’s positions on issues, his command of the facts and his dexterity in dealing with challenges and probing questions.
Attempts to keep Biden in the background — or in his basement, which has become both literal and a metaphor — only highlight the concern that is acknowledged quietly by some Biden supporters regarding his stamina, and whether he is up to the rigors of a full-blown campaign and governing as president.
In order to dispel such concerns, Biden needs to regularly make himself available, particularly to the press, and to engage with the public without a fully scripted message. He should give regular press conferences via Zoom or in large venues where he can be socially distanced from reporters. He should give one-on-one interviews to friends and foes, and otherwise be “present” and “available” for voters to see and hear within the limitations of COVID restrictions.
There is, of course, a very good argument to be made that Biden’s best strategy is to stay out of Trump’s way, because the president seems to be his own worst enemy. Indeed, that approach seems to be working. But there comes a time when a presidential candidate needs to articulate his vision, defend his positions and be seen working actively to bring the country together.
The Pew Research Center last week reported that about one-third of Biden supporters “list Biden’s age (77) or health as a major concern regarding their chosen candidate.” By contrast, only 1% of Trump supporters voiced similar concerns about the president’s age (74) and health. Biden needs to confront and address that issue head on.
Concerns regarding the age of the president are nothing new. “His memory was already sensibly impaired by age, the firm tone of mind for which he had been remarkable was beginning to relax,” wrote one presidential critic. The critic was Thomas Jefferson. The president was George Washington.