WASHINGTON — When Senator Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination and the economy collapsed this spring, two pillars of President Trump’s re-election strategy collapsed at the same time: his plan to run on prosperity and against a far-left opponent. But Mr. Trump’s campaign took comfort in the expectation that Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s penchant for gaffes would at least offer them dependable fodder for attack.
The pandemic, and Mr. Biden’s play-it-safe campaign, however, have starved them of even that.
With mandated social distancing measures entering their fourth month in many states, Mr. Biden has held few events and therefore committed few missteps. He conducts television interviews and has slowly started to hold public events. But Mr. Biden’s aides said they had no plans to stage the sort of rallies Mr. Trump will begin holding again Saturday — and which the president’s campaign had been counting on as the most reliable source of Biden gaffes.
So Mr. Trump’s advisers are trying to flush Mr. Biden into the open. They have taken to taunting him for remaining in the basement of his Delaware home, and counting the days since he last held a news conference. On Thursday they demanded that the former vice president agree to more debates in the fall, asking for four instead of the traditional three.
“We want them sooner and we want a bigger schedule,” said Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager.
On the same day, Mr. Trump used Twitter to reveal that, in the aftermath of two Supreme Court decisions, on L.G.B.T.Q. rights and immigration, that have demoralized conservatives, he would release a list of jurists he’d pick from to fill any vacancies on the nation’s top court in his second term. Mr. Trump made an identical move in his 2016 campaign, and it served as a motivator for a Christian conservative base that heavily supported him at the polls.
Both announcements amounted to the sort of entreaties campaigns make when they’re losing, which every national and battleground state survey indicates is the case: seeking more unscripted encounters, responding to headlines with hastily devised ploys — anything to upend the trajectory of the race.
“Because of the pandemic, Trump in many ways still doesn’t have an opponent yet, there’s no tit for tat in the news every day,” said Sara Fagen, who was political director in former President George W. Bush’s White House. “Biden is nowhere.”
The Trump campaign is hardly the first to engage in the political equivalent of living off the land. Struggling candidates often reach for whatever emerges in the news cycle in hopes of gaining traction. Yet it’s rare for an incumbent president, this far from the election, to be so openly reliant on trying to leverage an opponent to gain an advantage.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
Mr. Trump’s campaign is increasingly reminiscent of those of the two Republican standard-bearers he has so often clashed with than that of a sitting president. In 2008 and 2012, John McCain and then Mitt Romney often careened between themes, depending on what was in the headlines or what Barack Obama had said on a certain day.
Mr. Romney even turned Mr. Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment about business owners into an entire evening’s focus at the 2012 Republican National Convention. And, then as now, when unfavorable public polls were released in that race, Mr. Romney and his advisers expressed skepticism about their accuracy, eager to believe they could be “unskewed,” to revive a phrase from that campaign.
Part of Mr. Trump’s challenge owes to his own miscalculation. He believed he could recreate his race against Hillary Clinton by caricaturing Mr. Biden as a version of her — a fixture of the so-called “swamp” whose purported corruption would turn off voters.
But despite being impeached over his efforts to put flesh on the bones of this theme, the president’s attempts to use the overseas work of Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, to tar the former vice president have largely been blunted by events — namely the pandemic, the attendant economic crash and weeks of unrest over racial injustice.
All the while, Mr. Biden has stayed out of his own way and largely stuck to script when he has appeared in public.
“At some point he’s going to have to come out for air,” Mr. Trump said in an interview on Fox News this week, allowing that Mr. Biden’s cautious campaign has “been run beautifully.”
The president’s comments betray more than just his frustration with how elusive a target Mr. Biden has been. They also represent an admission of how central the former vice president’s campaign trail performance is to Mr. Trump’s own strategy. Few politicians delight in seizing on the news of the day, or even the hour, to ridicule their rivals as the television-obsessed Mr. Trump, who often acts as his own one-man rapid response operation.
What’s more, the campaign has not had a chief strategist since the re-election got underway in 2018, leaving the campaign with a series of tactics but no cohesive strategy. And after shelving his “Keep America Great” message because of the coronavirus, they have not come up with another overarching theme, as even Republicans close to the campaign concede.
Now, with the president offering little in the way of a second-term agenda and smothering the news with his daily jeremiads against a rotating gallery of adversaries — on Friday it was a thinly veiled threat to Tulsa protesters — his campaign is struggling to turn the election from a referendum on the incumbent to the choice they’d prefer it be.
“Trump is a challenger at heart, he wants to run against something,” said Mike Murphy, a G.O.P. consultant who is advising a group of pro-Biden Republicans. “Biden won’t give him much. He doesn’t have the economy to brag about. So what’s he against? Joe Scarborough and looters.”
Still, as Mr. Murphy noted, Mr. Biden will eventually be forced to take a higher public profile and will be under a microscope.
“When he does come out for big stuff like the debates the stakes will be high and he’s got to be good,” Mr. Murphy said.
For now, though, whatever mistakes Mr. Biden is making are quickly drowned out by Mr. Trump’s self-inflicted wounds.
Indeed, the most memorable misstep Biden has made since he effectively claimed the Democratic nomination only underscored the depth of the White House’s challenge.
On a Friday morning last month, Mr. Biden appeared on “The Breakfast Club,” a nationally syndicated morning show popular with black millennials, and said “you ain’t black” if you are torn between him and Mr. Trump. The president’s campaign mobilized immediately, sending out statements, holding conference calls with black supporters and even printing T-shirts lampooning Mr. Biden’s gaffe. Finally, they all but exhaled; here was their chance to sow doubts in the minds of voters about their opponent.
Their opening proved short-lived.
That weekend, which marked the Memorial Day holiday, the president said little about the American death toll from the pandemic reaching 100,000.
But by the end of the holiday weekend, he was focused on one death unrelated to the virus. Mr. Trump repeatedly suggested that Mr. Scarborough, the onetime Republican congressman turned MSNBC anchor, had murdered a former staff member. The accusation was false, and it prompted the widower of the deceased woman to ask Twitter to stop posting the president’s conspiracy mongering.
Mr. Biden’s “ain’t black” gaffe, just days old, was out of the news. And Republicans could hardly contain their frustration over the damage the president was doing to his own campaign.
It would have been as if, immediately after John F. Kerry said in 2004 that he had voted for military spending in Iraq “before I voted against it,” Mr. Bush had responded by going on a multiday binge accusing Keith Olbermann of homicide.
Mr. Trump has, of course, long been guided by his impulses and instincts. It served him just well enough in his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton, who along with her husband, carried decades of political baggage.
But Mr. Trump is learning that it’s hard to campaign as an outsider when you’re running from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And it’s harder still when the mask your opponent is wearing doubles as a muzzle.