“The pandemic is over,” Joe Biden declared on Sunday night. The president apparently arrived at this conclusion by casually surveying his surroundings. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks,” Biden said. “Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.” Though he caveated his observation—Covid remains a “problem,” and there’s “a lot of work” yet to do—the global coronavirus outbreak and all its attendant miseries are behind us.
This happy news apparently came as a shock to the Biden administration. The president’s decree “was not part of his planned remarks,” according to Politico, and his remarks “caught several of his own health officials by surprise.” It’s hard to blame them. The administration is not acting as if the pandemic is over, in part, because it cannot.
Just last week, the Biden administration went to court to argue that the president has the executive power to impose a Covid vaccination mandate on federal workers. During oral arguments, Justice Department attorney Charles Scarborough conceded that, unlike many other vaccination requirements, the Covid vaccines do not prevent the transmission of this particular coronavirus. But because the government has an interest in avoiding illness-related disruptions, and because Biden is functionally the “CEO of the federal workforce,” the power to impose such mandates must remain with the executive.
“The fact is that the science has changed,” Scarborough argued. While the argument in favor of a vaccination mandate to arrest the spread of the disease has “somewhat eroded,” he insisted that “there are still significant rationales at play here in terms of preventing serious illness for federal employees.” The administration has largely stuck to the jurisdictional case for the president’s preferences, but the unique nature of this disease and its presumed prevalence still informs the administration’s arguments.
The courts have conceded that the chief executive has all the Article II authority he needs to impose a vaccination mandate on America’s servicemen and women. The Biden administration argues, similarly, that such mandates are crucial to maintain America’s military readiness. In a letter to Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin, however, 47 members of Congress disagreed with the White House’s rationale.
“As a result of your mandate, eight percent of the Army’s approximately 1 million soldiers face expulsion,” they wrote, “Army recruiters cannot meet their FY22 target, and the Army has cut its projected FY23 end strength by 12,000 soldiers.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data, these lawmakers added, indicates that the demographic profile shared by most combat-ready service personnel suggests their risk of serious complications arising from Covid infection is minimal. In the absence of a true emergency, hamstringing the services in this fashion is an unnecessary self-inflicted wound.
As National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke observed, the rationale supposedly justifying Joe Biden’s already legally dubious fiat forcing taxpayers to pay others’ student debts is demolished by the president’s admission. The White House repeatedly invoked the state of “national emergency” represented by the pandemic and the authority that condition allegedly confers upon the president. In the absence of such an emergency—one that supposedly places artificial limits on a borrower’s ability to earn wages in a labor market that is starved for labor—nothing justifies the administration’s assault on constitutional propriety and the existing social compact.
The president’s unilateral declaration of victory over the virus has not been well-received in the press either. “Biden says ‘the pandemic is over’ even as death toll, costs mount,” read the palpably bitter headline of the Reuters report on Biden’s remarks. The writer is justifiably befuddled by the president’s assertion because the White House only recently asked Congress to approve another $22.4 billion in emergency funding for pandemic-related expenses. One reporter privy to the administration’s background briefing on the request revealed that the “funding would be necessary to replenish testing stockpiles that are not currently sufficient to respond to a potential fall surge.”
So, which is it? Is the pandemic over, or are we bracing for yet another wave that will overwhelm a nation still reeling from a virus that claims roughly 400 lives every day?
Earlier this month, a survey commissioned by the New York Times indicated to op-ed writer David Leonhardt that Covid had become “a good issue” for the party in power. “Americans give the Democrats significantly higher marks” than Republicans when looking back on the pandemic. Republicans should relish the opportunity to test that proposition in the real world, especially since such a gauzy retrospection cannot begin before the pandemic is truly in the rearview mirror.
Joe Biden’s instincts have led him to conclude that moving on is a valuable branding exercise for him and his party. His instincts are probably right, but too many of his administration’s initiatives are bound up with the pandemic to simply declare it over. That assumes this White House’s core constituent groups will sit back and let the pandemic slip away. After all, as CNN correspondent Nick Valencia wrote, “The pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it.”
That sort of rote hostility toward those who take a dim view of the permanent pandemic was once reserved for Republicans alone. Not anymore.