OPINION | Biden has a lead but also four big tests

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FOR Joe Biden, the immortal words of baseball pitcher and all-purpose sage Satchel Paige apply right now: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

At the moment, President Trump doesn’t appear to be gaining on Mr. Biden in the 2020 presidential race, but rather doing the opposite: fading further back in the polls. Yet 18 weeks remain before Election Day — an eternity in the era of Trump, when big shocks come with stunning regularity.

Consider that 18 weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported precisely 53 Americans were infected with the coronavirus, and the first publicly known deaths were only about to be reported. The big news was the just-completed impeachment trial of Mr. Trump and the #MeToo conviction of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Unemployment stood at 3.5%. George Floyd was still alive.

Moreover, political history teaches us that sometimes seeming blowouts turn around. In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had a 17-point lead over then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in a midsummer Gallup poll. We all know how that turned out.

Other times, seemingly tight races turn into blowouts. In 1980, then-President Carter and Republican nominee Ronald Reagan were nearly tied in the polls until Mr. Reagan proved himself to swing voters in a late-September debate, then surged to a landslide victory.

The Biden campaign knows all this, of course. A bare-knuckles campaign lies ahead, during which Mr. Trump’s team will portray Mr. Biden as a mentally declining career politician in the grips of far-left Democratic socialists and gangs running loose in America’s streets. The Trump campaign won’t allow the race to be what many Democrats want: a simple referendum on the president.

So smart Democrats know Mr. Biden still has a lot to do. In a series of recent conversations with Democratic analysts, inside Biden world and out, they cite four tasks in particular that stand out for the presumptive Democratic nominee:

  • Articulate a comprehensive economic plan. The one area where the president ranks ahead of Mr. Biden in polls is handling the economy — which may be the most important area of all. “That’s the single biggest worry I have as a Democrat,” says Doug Sosnik, who served as political director in Bill Clinton’s White House.

During the Democratic primaries, Mr. Biden proposed plans to move the economic system to the left, though not as far as many of his rivals proposed: higher top income- and corporate-tax rates, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a highly ambitious plan for rebuilding American infrastructure.

He has since proposed forgiving student loans for low-and middle-income families and lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60. Still to come is a plan to pivot away from the dependence on foreign supply chains revealed during the coronavirus crisis toward more industrial independence.

Yet the moment may demand a plan more focused specifically on recovery from Depression-like plunges in employment and growth. Mr. Trump will declare: I led a growing economy before the pandemic, and I’ll do it again.

  • Develop a message on China. Beyond the economy and law and order, the third leg of the Trump message will be toughness toward China. Biden advisers think they can respond by portraying the actual Trump record on China as one of weakness, in which the president has been bested by Beijing on both trade and the coronavirus.

Yet Mr. Biden, who has basically been a moderate on China during his career, will have to figure out where he wants to land on the toughness- versus-cooperation spectrum.

  • Handle the debates. These will be crucial. The Trump campaign wants more and earlier debates; it appears to see those as the forums where the president can make Mr. Biden appear unsteady and over the hill.

Much as Mr. Reagan needed a solid debate performance in 1980 to convince voters that it was safe to dump an incumbent of whom they had grown weary, so too will Mr. Biden need to reassure swing voters. “He should spend two to three hours every day, six days a week, in practice and planning,” says Democrat Peter Hart, who helps conduct The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. “It is the only thing that counts. He needs to be Uncle Joe, not Grandpa Joe.”

  • Get the running-mate choice right. She—and Mr. Biden has said it would be a woman—has to leave Americans feeling comfortable that the presidency would be in good hands should something happen to the 77-year-old Mr. Biden; must reassure restive Democratic progressives without scaring away centrist independent voters; and needs to be embraced by Democrats of color who think they, more than ever, deserve to be represented on the ticket. Rarely has there been a vice presidential nominee who has to carry such a heavy load.

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