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POTUS practice: Biden, Sanders use global crisis to burnish presidential styles

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders each auditioned Thursday for the role of President of the United States, striking starkly different tones as they delivered their respective versions of the speech they believe Donald Trump should have given

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders each auditioned Thursday for the role of President of the United States, striking starkly different tones as they delivered their respective versions of the speech they believe Donald Trump should have given the virus-stricken nation from the Oval Office.

For Biden, the Democratic primary front-runner whose outbreak-themed speech in Wilmington, Del., had been scheduled several days earlier, the timing couldn't have been more serendipitous: the night before, Trump delivered a prime-time address that was as stunning for the president's demeanour and style as it was for its content.

"The American people have the capacity to meet this moment," Biden drawled, a bank of American flags behind him, as he thanked health workers and first responders, consoled the sick and grieving and acknowledged the ongoing sacrifices of those contending with the outbreak's realities.

"We're going to face this with the same spirit that has guided us through previous crises. We'll come together as a nation, we'll look out for one another and do our part as citizens."

Sanders, on the other hand — his thick Brooklyn accent and familiar gesticulations evoking a less subdued approach — opted to drive home the potential scale of the crisis rather than try to soothe the nerves of a nation.

"In terms of potential deaths and the impact on our economy, the crisis we face from coronavirus is on the scale of a major war, and we must act accordingly," Sanders declared.

"Nobody knows how many fatalities we may see, but they could equal or surpass the U.S. casualties we saw in World War Two."

Like Biden, the Vermont senator's speech was tailor-made to let him punch up some of the cornerstones of his bid for the Democratic nomination, including "Medicare for All," a crackdown on "profiteering" and "price-gouging" in the pharmaceutical industry, and an aggressive overhaul of the American social safety net to help the poor, the underemployed and the elderly.

It was classic Sanders: frank and direct, with no punches pulled. Comforting, it was not.

"If our neighbour or co-worker gets sick, we have the potential to get sick," Sanders said. 

"If our neighbours lose their jobs, then our local economies suffer, and we may lose our jobs. If doctors and nurses do not have the equipment and staffing capacity they need now, people we know and love may die."

Sanders urged Trump to declare a national emergency, and called for a bipartisan expert panel to establish a science-based, fact-based response to the outbreak. He recommended national and state information hotlines to help answer the most pressing questions. And he warned of the coming impact to residents of nursing homes and rehabilitation centres, immigration detainees, prisoners and illegal aliens.

"What we do not want to see is at a time when half of our people are living paycheque to paycheque, when they need to go to work in order to take care of their family, we do not want to see people going to work who are sick and can spread the coronavirus."

The former vice-president, too, rolled out a detailed strategy, including a revamped, no-charge testing regimen that would include mobile and drive-through testing sites, with a focus on nursing homes, long-term care centres and vulnerable populations.

Biden called for fast-tracking work on a vaccine and said he would deploy the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. military to establish facilities to deal with an expected coming surge of patients.

And he repeated his call to resurrect the White House directorate on health security, established during the Obama era "for exactly this scenario," which the Trump administration shuttered in 2018.

But it was clear Biden's overarching goal was to capitalize on the reputation that had oddsmakers liking his chances long before the race got underway in earnest, and which also happens to be the albatross around his rival's neck: electability.

"No president can promise to prevent future outbreaks. But I can promise you that when I'm president, we will prepare better, respond better, and recover better," Biden said.  

"We will lead with science. We will listen to experts and heed their advice. We will rebuild American leadership and rally the world to meet global threats. And I will always, always tell you the truth."

Beginning this weekend, both campaigns will abandon large-scale public events in accordance with public-health advice, favouring digital-only events, livestreams and smaller-scale outreach. Staffers will also work from home.

Sanders and Biden are to square off Sunday in the first two-man televised debate of the campaign, which was originally supposed to happen in Phoenix in front of a live audience.

Instead, the debate will happen without spectators and take place in Washington, to minimize the need for air travel.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press