Until now, it’s been easy for the new President to criticize the Trump administration’s obviously negligent and incompetent response to the worst public health crisis in 100 years. But words are no longer enough now that he’s behind the Oval Office desk with Americans dreaming of a vaccine and a return to work, family life and travel.
“The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is — let the science speak, it is somewhat of a liberating feeling,” said the government’s top infectious diseases expert, who often clashed with former President Donald Trump’s fantastical alternative realities.
Fauci — who was sidelined by Trump, who spouted uniformed, politicized misinformation in coronavirus task force briefings — said things were already far more professional.
“You know, one of the new things in this administration is if you don’t know the answer, don’t guess,” he said.
What is so striking is that Biden’s approach, while welcome, is in many cases implementing measures that a comprehensive pandemic response from the previous administration would have taken at the start.
It is rooted in a bet that throwing federal government expertise, money and scale at a crisis can turn the situation around and finally provide the leadership and coordination that has been lacking in the year since the coronavirus struck the US.
The President will turn from the epidemiological challenge of the virus on Friday to the economic consequences of the pandemic as he signs another set of executive orders to bring relief after an intense start to his term.
The pandemic’s new political equation
There are two concurrent tracks in the ramped up coronavirus response: the rush to intensify the battle against the virus and the political effort to manage the fallout from the crisis and its impact on the early months of the new presidency.
Thus, the President is adopting a two-pronged message — warning that the season of death and sickness will intensify, while offering an optimistic prediction that the horror will not last forever.
“Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better … The death toll will likely top 500,000 next month and the cases will continue to mount,” Biden said as he unveiled his new strategy at the White House.
“We didn’t get into this mess overnight. It’s going to take months for us to turn things around. And let me be equally clear, we will get through this. We will defeat this pandemic.”
But it is one thing to come up with a strategy. It’s another thing for Biden, and his incoming team of high-ranking scientists, medical experts and logistics experts, to quickly turn around often sluggish federal government machinery. The White House will need states, some of which have failed badly in all aspects of the pandemic, to respond to the new federal effort. And while Biden can change policy with his pen, he needs massive, swift investment from a tightly balanced Congress to make his plan work.
Then there are the medical factors beyond his control.
While hospitalizations are declining in a sign of hope, many experts fear that it could be a temporary relief and new, more transmissible versions of the virus will quash hopes of a significant easing of the situation in the spring.
And even in countries where the pandemic has been better handled, there have been a string of busted timelines over when normal life might resume, as coronavirus defies attempts to eradicate it from societies.
So there is a question of how much more patience the American people have, with no clear answers yet from the government on when individuals not in the highest risk age and medical categories can get vaccinated.
While the Biden administration is just getting started, the country has been locked in the purgatory of lockdowns, working and schooling from home, amid separation from family members for 10 months. Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of Biden’s election win, meanwhile, may challenge the authority of his new measures and the willingness of millions of Americans to listen.
In any case, announcing that they were starting from square one also appeared to be an effort to manage expectations for Biden and to give his team some time to crank up the new anti-Covid offensive with the virus still spreading out of control.
The new President betrayed the high stakes of the pandemic response operation at the end of his event at the White House Thursday when asked whether he was setting the bar high enough.
“When I announced it, you all said it’s not possible. Come on, give me a break, man,” the President said, betraying a tetchiness with second guessing from the press likely to become more pronounced as his honeymoon period fades.
Still, many experts are confident that with a concentrated effort, the new administration will be successful in cranking up both the supply and the distribution of the vaccine.
It was notable, for instance, that Fauci, in common with other experts, appeared to indicate that the bigger concern in the long term was whether sufficient Americans would take the vaccine to assure herd immunity — the point at which enough people have been infected with Covid-19 or immunized against it to stop transmission of the virus.
“If we get 70% to 85% of the country vaccinated, let’s say by the end of the summer, middle of the summer, I believe by the time we get to the fall, we will be approaching a degree of normality,” Fauci said.
If he’s right, the American people will get their lives back and Biden can expect a serious payoff of public trust, political capital and a reputation for competence that would be invaluable in building support for his ambitious legislative agenda, and ultimately his place in history.