Joe Biden walked into a darkened ballroom, a grim look on his face, and turned to the rolling cameras to read his prepared text. He laid out a detailed plan for how the government should tackle the coronavirus pandemic – adding hospital beds, making free tests readily available and, above all, making “radical changes in our personal behaviors.”

Bernie Sanders, speaking a short time later, was if anything more sober, declaring that the crisis was “on the scale of a major war,” and adding, “The number of casualties may actually be even higher than what the Armed Forces experienced in World War II.”

Those two presidential-looking moments came a day after President Trump sat at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office of the White House, bringing to bear all the trappings of the most powerful office in the world in an effort to calm the nerves of a jittery nation.

The world didn’t respond as he hoped, with the stock markets collapsing, professional sports leagues suspending their seasons, major cultural events canceled and Americans bracing for the sorts of daily disruptions they have never experienced.

Typically, an incumbent president running for re-election might step into a moment of crisis to harness the power and megaphone of the office to demonstrate strong leadership. But Trump’s response gave Biden, Sanders and other Democrats a chance Thursday to turn those conventions upside down, asking voters to envision them steering the country through troubled waters.

“I can promise you that when I’m president, we will prepare better, respond better and recover better,” Biden said. “And I will always, always tell you the truth. That is the responsibility of a president.”

While Trump was criticized for sowing confusion in his 11-minute Oval Office address Wednesday – focusing on problems more foreign than domestic, more economic than medical – Biden and Sanders focused squarely on how a commander in chief might use his powers to tackle a spreading pandemic. Biden outlined how the Pentagon could build new hospital beds, how researchers could strive for a vaccine and how testing kits should be free and readily available. Sanders said the government should pressure pharmaceutical companies to provide eventual virus-related medications at-cost, set up a national hotline that could help people assess their symptoms and dramatically increase testing.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have moved in similar fashion, pressing for a relief package that they believe Trump and the Republicans are taking too long to approve. “We don’t need 48 hours, we need to just make a decision to help families right now,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “We have to operate not as business as usual, but in emergency status where we have to get the job done.”

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President Trump speaks in an address to the nation Wednesday from the Oval Office at the White House about the coronavirus. Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool

The day encapsulated a remarkable moment in American politics, putting on vivid display how a trio of leaders – one president and two presidential hopefuls – responded to a spiraling crisis that is reconstructing the way modern American life is conducted. In the 90 minutes between Biden’s and Sanders’ comments, the Dow Jones industrial average lost a couple hundred points.

The volatile political moment in some ways echoed the final weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign, when a financial collapse prompted dramatically different reactions from Barack Obama and John McCain, giving Obama an opportunity to make the case that he’d be a calm and competent leader.

The pandemic has rapidly consumed the presidential contest, with candidates readjusting their schedules, canceling rallies and relying on virtual meetings with supporters. The Biden and Sanders campaigns both told staffers Thursday to work from home. Biden’s headquarters and field offices will be closed to the public, making door-knocking and grassroots organizing that much harder, with four more states voting on Tuesday.

The Democratic National Committee announced that it was moving Sunday night’s Biden-Sanders debate from Phoenix to Washington so the candidates and their staffs would not have to travel as far. There will be no live audience and one of the moderators, Univision’s Jorge Ramos, is dropping out because he recently came into proximity with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The debate itself will now unfold on unique political terrain. Sanders has signaled that he will press Biden on health care, among other issues, while Biden is hoping to alleviate doubts about his age and verbal stumbles. Given the sense of crisis enveloping the country, both candidates will face pressure to carefully calibrate their tone.

The Trump campaign wasted little time Thursday portraying Biden and Sanders as opportunistic, saying they were fearmongering for their own political gain.

“President Trump acted early and decisively and has put the United States on a stronger footing than other nations,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump 2020. “His every move has been aimed at keeping Americans safe, while Joe Biden has sought to capitalize politically and stoke citizens’ fears.”

As for Sanders, Murtaugh called him “just another Democratic candidate for president trying to score political points by recklessly provoking anxiety and fear.”

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders shifted their emphasis from slamming Trump’s response to working with the administration to provide relief to those suffering economically.

Pelosi has spent the past few days negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, both in person and over the phone, trying to hammer out a set of policy proposals that would help ameliorate the coronavirus’s impact and reassure the public and global leaders that on matters so serious, bipartisan work is possible.

“Right now we have to find our common ground, work together to get this done as soon as possible,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “What we really have to do is come together and get the job done.”

A Democratic draft proposal released earlier this week includes extended unemployment benefits, mandatory sick leave, funds for coronavirus testing, provisions for those on food programs to get meals even when schools close, and other measures. Pelosi suggested a modest deal this week could lead to more expansive legislation in the future.

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Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to reporters about coronavirus Thursday in Burlington, Vt. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

But the unusual nature of the political moment was most evident in the maneuvering on the presidential level. The addresses by Trump, Biden and Sanders, all within a 24-hour period, set starkly different tones and widely divergent views not only of this crisis but of the U.S. role in the world.

Biden emphasized unity and empathy for those impacted, while Sanders urged the nation to do more to provide health care for all. Trump, who rose to office on an America First agenda, largely blamed foreigners for spreading the virus and said he was restricting travel from much of Europe.

Trump, his thumbs fidgeting as he sat at his desk in the White House, touted his administration’s “unprecedented response” to a virus that, he emphasized, “started in China.” He cast the “foreign virus” as an opportunity for the United States to once again show its strength and dominance in the world.

Rather than soothing fears, however, his comments seemed to stoke them. Stock market futures plummeted as he spoke, and administration officials had to clarify three important points that Trump, while reading from a teleprompter, had misstated.

After he thought the cameras had stopped, he unbuttoned his jacket, sighed and let out a long “Okayyyyy.”

Biden had been preparing an address for Thursday afternoon before Trump had announced his address to the nation. But after Trump’s speech, Biden’s campaign had a moment they had wanted, one that would offer a dramatic contrast.

Biden opened his remarks by addressing the anxiety and worries spreading through the nation and offering comfort to those who have been infected or lost a loved one to the virus.

He spoke for twice as long as Trump and repeatedly criticized the president for spreading misinformation, downplaying the threat and blaming foreign nations. He noted that Trump’s administration has reduced public health funding, cut federal agencies and strained relationships with other countries.

“Unfortunately, this virus laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current administration,” Biden said. “Public fears are being compounded by pervasive lack of trust in this president, fueled by an adversarial relationship with the truth.”

While Trump cited America’s preeminence, Biden emphasized global interconnections, saying, “Disease can start anyplace on the planet, can get on a plane to any city on Earth.” He added, “The coronavirus does not have political affiliation. It will not discriminate on national origin, race or ZIP code.”

As he has taken control of the Democratic nominating contest, Biden has started to focus on making his campaign one that broadcasts stability.

Earlier in the week, he unveiled a new team that is advising him on the coronavirus outbreak, a list that included several former Obama administration officials, including former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy, former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, and Ezekiel Emanuel, who advised Obama on health care.

In addition, one of Biden’s top advisers has been Ronald Klain, who was Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president and also handled the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak.

About 90 minutes after Biden began his remarks, Sanders stood before a wall plastered with campaign signs in a hotel near his home in Burlington, Vermont, and issued the most dire assessment, declaring a “global economic meltdown” and a potential human and economic toll on the “scale of a major war.”

Leaning heavily on a lectern, Sanders said the United States is “at a severe disadvantage” compared with other countries because it does not offer universal health care, and he urged the nation to learn from other countries that are testing for the coronavirus at a much higher rate.

Sanders – who also convened a roundtable discussion with doctors on the coronavirus on Monday – has called for the government to take such actions as paying for hospital visits and vaccines and guaranteeing workers’ paychecks.

“While we work to pass a Medicare-for-all single-payer system, the United States government today must it make it clear that in the midst of this emergency, everyone in our country, regardless of income or where they live, must be able to get all of the health care they need without cost,” Sanders said.

 

The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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