Joe Biden blindsided, but not blinded, by solar eclipse, writes Simon Marks in Washington DC

9 April 2024, 10:08

Joe Biden blindsided, but not blinded, by solar eclipse, writes Simon Marks in Washington DC
Joe Biden blindsided, but not blinded, by solar eclipse, writes Simon Marks in Washington DC. Picture: LBC/Getty
  • Simon Marks in Washington DC
Simon Marks

By Simon Marks

As diary events go, nothing could possibly have been more predictable than the solar eclipse that captivated Americans on Monday. You could quite literally have set your watch by it, and yet the White House appears to have been completely blindsided by the celestial event.

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If Donald Trump’s handling of an eclipse in 2017 is best remembered for his decision to stare directly at the sun, despite endless public health warnings to don protective glasses, Joe Biden in 2024 will go down in history as the President who simply ignored the event.

While millions of Americans were trying to find cloudless skies and a vantage point from which to experience 3 minutes of darkness during daytime, the President was en route to Wisconsin to make a speech about his latest efforts to alleviate student debt.

Aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Karine Jean Pierre was sandbagged by members of the press corps wondering why they were being traipsed to the city of Madison, instead of any kind of eclipse-viewing event back at base.

“Will the President see any of the solar eclipse”, a reporter asked.

“I just don’t have anything to share on – on – right now, at this moment, on – on the President”, came the press secretary’s deer-in-headlights response, which was (in the late Lord Armstrong’s famous phrase) economical with the truth, because she knew that he had made no plans.

“Why is the President traveling today?” demanded another White House correspondent.

“We know how exciting this is…we know that people will want to watch it”, said Jean-Pierre referencing the eclipse, not the President’s upcoming speech. “But student loans matter, right? Giving Americans student loan relief matters, right??”

“True”, answered a reporter drily, before grumbling that Biden “could talk about student loans any day of the week”.

It was a remarkable exchange. The reality of a White House determined to try and keep America on the straight-and-narrow came crashing up against a press corps that was more interested in strapping on a pair of funny glasses and joining the rest of the country in observing a natural wonder that has been unseen for the last forty years.

Not since February 1992, when President George H. W. Bush expressed amazement at the existence of supermarket checkout scanners (having not set foot in a grocery store for decades) has an American leader seemed more out of kilter with the public he represents.

It fell to Vice President Kamala Harris to prove that American leaders can still walk and chew gum at the same time. She traveled to Philadelphia, loyally to host a roundtable with American who have already benefited from previous Biden administration efforts to alleviate student debt. But then she also observed the eclipse with a group of school children, managing to cover both major bases without breaking a sweat.

For Biden, the ancient occupant of Washington’s once-starchy corridors of power, the day served as a fresh reminder that in this November’s election, many voters appear to want more sizzle and less steak. Donald Trump offers them – in the parlance of the American west – “all hat and no cattle”. Millions are rewarding him as a result, leaving Biden trailing Trump in six of seven key battleground states in the latest polls.

Wisconsin is the outlier. Biden has clawed his way to a 2 point lead over Trump there in the latest polls.

The White House, then, will have been delighted by Tuesday’s front page of the Wisconsin State Journal. Unlike any of its bigger name competitors, it featured banner headlines on the President’s locally unveiled student debt announcement (“New Debt Relief Plan Announced”), and consigned the eclipse (“Cosmic Dance Traces Path Across Continent”) firmly to the bottom of its front page.