The onus rests on Joe Biden to assure voters he would do a better job than Donald Trump as president. A challenger always carries that burden against an incumbent.
Trump shows an eagerness to defame Biden, as he would with any rival. But the president has yet to defend his own ability to act on crises afflicting the nation on his watch. He might be setting a low bar for the former vice president when it comes to the bare basics of an executive's job.
The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly the most widespread crisis. The president called the virus "deadly" in private as early as February but kept telling the public it would go away by itself. He delayed mobilizing federal resources to fight what became the pandemic of a century.
Trump's special brand of noisy passivity hands Biden obvious debating points. Last Friday, the Democrat's coronavirus adviser Dr. Vivek Murthy said Biden had "already started" work on a plan to expand testing and contact tracing and distribute a vaccine as soon as it is properly tested and approved.
A more visceral contrast between candidates on the coronavirus is dramatized each day in photos. Biden adheres to the mask-wearing and social distancing, as health professionals urge almost unanimously. Trump rarely is seen with a mask, and at rallies, his followers often are close together and maskless. He has all but urged defiance of states' public health precautions, suggesting these policies are all about his critics trying to hurt him.
Even at this late date, with the U.S. death toll rising toward 200,000, Trump makes no effort to lead anyone away from indulging in virus denial. He cannot be bothered with the most basic public-service announcements. One of the president's Michigan rallygoers interviewed last week by CNN still called it a "fake pandemic."
On a new coronavirus relief package, Biden and Democratic allies support federal aid to assist state and local governments. Biden said: "When you lay off so many educators, janitors, and bus drivers, you not only cause them a great difficulty, but you slow the economy even further. It's in the economic interest of this country to have these jobs maintained."
Trump called for a different approach, which primarily includes suspending the federal payroll tax, which helps fund Social Security. Senate Republicans shunned the idea.
The president didn't fight them. Instead he issued an executive order postponing the tax, which had no practical effect. He declined to try negotiating with Democrats in Congress to resolve differences. Last Thursday, majority GOP senators declared another relief bill all but dead.
New carnage arrived when massive wildfires raced through rural communities in the Western U.S. this month, wreaking way more destruction and havoc in Oregon alone than the recent riots in Portland for which he blames Democrats.
By the weekend, Trump had maintained days of Twitter and radio silence on the wildfires. Once this became widely noted, and after he had called California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the president praised firefighters and talked about grant money. On Saturday, a photo-op in California was hastily arranged, tacked on to his campaign trip to Nevada and Arizona.
Experts widely attribute the severity of the Western wildfires to climate change, which worsens long droughts and brings higher temperatures. Biden vows to address climate change but hasn't always supported policies pushed by environmental advocates.
Trump avoids any mention of the matter, having previously called global warming a "hoax." His most famous input on wildfires two years ago was a confusing suggestion to the states about raking forests as they do in Finland. His words brought no official action.
Mark Harvey, who was senior director for resilience at the National Security Council until January, told The New York Times the government had struggled to prepare for cascading blazes like those in California.
"The government does a very, very bad job looking at cascading scenarios," Harvey said. "Most of our systems are built to handle one problem at a time."
What can and will be done? Relevant responses to big crises create a distinctive issue in this unusual election. Whether Biden capitalizes on the incumbent's clear deficiencies remains a key question.