Coronavirus gives Vice President Pence his presidential moment

Sebastian Smith
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Vice President Mike Pence is coming out from President Donald Trump's shadow during the coronavirus crisis

As the coronavirus crisis sweeps the US government, the nation has come to rely on a voice of calm from the White House -- only it's not Donald Trump's.

Caricatured as a meek and loyal yes man, Vice President Mike Pence is surprising even some of his critics with an authoritative performance in the role of coronavirus tsar.

With near daily appearances in the White House press briefing room, the mild-mannered former governor of Indiana has become the face and voice of an administration sometimes struggling to issue a coherent message.

Ever the showman, Trump floats in and out of the crisis via Twitter, dramatic national addresses and impromptu press conferences.

But it's his vice president -- a man previously used to being ignored by the media -- who does the public relations hard graft.

On Sunday, Trump joined Pence at the White House podium to deliver a brief monologue in which he urged Americans to "relax."

Then Trump got out of the way.

"Our Vice President, who's doing an incredible job, is going to take over," he said.

It was time for Pence to step out of the shadows again.

- Cleaning up -

Heading the coronavirus task force has to be one of the hardest jobs in US politics today.

Pence not only has to coordinate the response to the pandemic. He has to clean up after his erratic boss -- and please him at the same time.

For weeks, Trump dismissed coronavirus as something that didn't have to be taken seriously. He also repeatedly accused his Democratic opponents and the media of hyping the crisis in a bid to weaken his reelection chances.

"His aides are literally scrambling around to try to make something more sane that's absolutely insane, which happens to be the president," Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as Trump's communications director, said in a scathing assessment on Sunday.

And Pence is the one scrambling the most.

He regularly has to massage or clarify the president's statements, all while framing his own comments as support.

But sometimes, the divergence in approaches by the two men cannot be masked over.

While Pence seeks to reassure, Trump, facing an increasingly difficult November reelection, sees conflict everywhere.

So when Pence praised the Democratic governor of Washington state, Jay Inslee, for his response to one of the worst local coronavirus outbreaks in the country, Trump brutally smacked him down.

"I told Mike not to be complimentary," Trump said. "That governor is a snake."

Pence doesn't bite back.

Still, when asked on NBC about the president's Twitter attacks against Democrats during the coronavirus crisis, Pence did issue what was interpreted as a rare rebuke, citing the "irresponsible rhetoric."

- Controversial past -

Trump's management style since taking office in 2017 has been much like his TV persona in "The Apprentice" show: an all-powerful alpha male barely needing advisors because he already knows the answers.

And for liberal late night TV comedians, Pence's embrace of the boss has been the gift that keeps giving.

"I hope the virus isn't spread by kissing ass," mocked Jimmy Kimmel.

Other critics point to Pence's controversial past as governor, when he was accused of mishandling his state's response to HIV, downplaying the dangers of smoking, and generally putting conservative ideology ahead of science.

On COVID-19, though, the 60-year-old vice president has won over doubters by giving relatively straight answers and allowing health experts like Dr Anthony Fauci to take the lead.

Pence "acted less like the 'coronavirus czar' and more like a good old-fashioned White House press secretary," Politico media columnist Jack Shafer wrote in a review of one briefing.

"He was calm. He was direct. He was polite in face of shouted, competing questions."

Democratic congressman Eric Swalwell, a fiercely vocal Trump critic, gave his own thumbs up after talks with Pence.

"I thought he had a pretty good handle on how our government works," Swalwell told Trump's favorite network, Fox News. "He's been working with experts and he assured us every decision he makes would be based on science.

"I am frankly most concerned about the president."