Where’s Joe?

The Washington Post reports that Joe Biden is running a presidential campaign of “limited exposure.” This Memorial Day weekend, when his rivals were scurrying from venue to venue pressing the flesh, Biden’s agenda stated “no public events scheduled.”

That’s typical of his campaign so far. According to the Post, since entering the race four weeks ago, Biden has held 11 public events. Beto O’Rourke held nearly four times that number in the same period. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have held 27; Bernie Sanders 17. Kirsten Gillibrand planned 11 stops in Iowa just over the holiday weekend.

Post reporters Annie Linskey and Chelsea Janes point out that, with the exception of O’Rourke, all of these candidates have full-time jobs in the Senate. Biden is unemployed.

Here are some of the events Biden is skipping: MoveOn’s “Big Ideas” forum; the California Democratic Party convention; the Iowa Democratic Party dinner; and the Black Economic Alliance presidential forum in Charleston, S.C. These events seem quite skipable, but not by someone who seeks the Democrats’ presidential nomination.

Why is Biden limiting his exposure so sharply? Linskey and Janes are too diplomatic, or partisan, to discuss the obvious reason — he’s a gaffe machine. Instead, they note that he has plenty of name recognition and leads in the polls. But if Biden were confident in his ability to face public scrutiny, he would be pressing home his advantage instead of avoiding the public.

Biden’s backers say that the public has no doubt about where their man stands on the issues of the day. That statement is laughable, though Linskey and Janes don’t challenge it. Biden has stood on both sides of many important issues.

Voters who pay attention know that, as a general matter, he’s repudiating the relative centrism that marked much of his political career, but they don’t know how thoroughly he is prepared to repudiate it. Biden himself may not be sure — another reason to avoid various fora.

The closest Linskey and Janes come to a satisfactory explanation for Biden’s reluctance to appear in public is this quotation from a Democratic operative who favors candidates to the left of Biden:

Voters are going into events with him expecting ‘Uncle Joe,’ but they come out having seen ‘Grandpa Joe.’

Harsh, but probably true. 

There are limits to the degree Biden can run a “front porch” campaign. He will, of course, have to appear in a series of debates. And participants in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire expect candidates to pay lots of attention to them.

A candidate who takes his appeal in these states for granted does so at his or her peril. Donald Trump found that out when he skipped a major Iowa forum and ended up second to Ted Cruz in the 2016 caucuses.

On balance, though, Biden is wise to limit his exposure. Given his somewhat centrist past, his opponents have enough to shoot at without Biden putting his foot in his mouth every other day.

Until a strong challenger not named Bernie Sanders emerges from the crowded field to mount a credible challenge to Biden, or until his poll numbers show he’s coming back to the pack, it makes sense for the former vice president to sit back, rest up, and rely on his image, which is considerably more appealing than the real Joe Biden.