The Democratic Party did not engineer the cult of personality around NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci into existence. The doctor’s face graced cupcakes, prayer candles, and the vestments of political hagiography well before Election Day. But as an oppositional relationship developed between Fauci and Donald Trump, Democrats eagerly embraced this prominent public health official. He became the avatar of the idea that the pandemic was manageable—indeed, evitable—so long as capable stewards of competent governance were allowed to do their jobs.
As the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency has demonstrated, the virus and human nature are easily bureaucratized. Democrats are, however, stuck with the doctor as the personification of their technocratic approach to ending the pandemic. Their investment in Dr. Fauci has long since reached the point of diminishing returns.
During a wide-ranging discussion at last week’s Atlantic festival, when he wasn’t endorsing policies that anyone in a politically competent enterprise would immediately recognize as toxic, Dr. Fauci regularly contradicted himself. He accurately noted that the approved COVID vaccines are effective at reducing rates of hospitalization and death to the point of negligibility, but added that preserving hospital capacity and saving lives is no longer our primary objective.
The communicability of COVID’s Delta variant is such that “even though you are vaccinated and that you yourself may not get symptoms at all, or if so only mild symptoms, you’re still capable of transmitting that infection to someone else,” Fauci said. And because only 55 percent of the population is currently fully vaccinated (including young children), we will all have to observe strenuous mitigation strategies including masking, social distancing, and a rigorous testing regime that does not presently exist. What’s more, given Delta’s transmissibility, “a third shot booster for a two-dose MRNA [vaccines] should be and will ultimately be the proper complete regimen.”
That’s complicated given the quasi-legal status that President Joe Biden has established around the status “fully vaccinated,” which at present consists only of two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines (sorry, Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients—you’re off the doctor’s radar). Revising that status would upend how every medium-to-large business is now supposed to conduct itself under penalty of an OSHA violation. And yet, fully vaccinating all Americans was not Fauci’s primary concern. “We shouldn’t do our boost at the expense of getting vaccines to the developing world,” Fauci insisted.
As a practical matter, Fauci’s concerns make sense. If your foremost fear is a form of this virus emerging in the developing world, as the Delta variant did, immunizing as much of the planet should be your priority. As a political consideration though, the notion that Americans should postpone their own immunization and endure emergency mitigation measures for the foreseeable future in deference to the rest of the world is a poisoned chalice.
Admittedly, that presupposes an end to the pandemic, which public health officials like the doctor no longer appear to envision. In this interview, Fauci moved the goalposts even further away from what most Americans understand was our objective: Rendering this coronavirus just one of many coronaviruses we encounter on a near-daily basis.
“It is an assumption that it’s okay to get mild and moderate disease as long as you don’t wind up in the hospital and die,” Fauci remarked. “And I have to be open and honest: I reject that. I think we should be preventing people from getting sick from COVID even if they don’t wind up in the hospital.” The doctor gave no indication that a third booster shot, which he believes is “the optimal regimen,” would prevent symptomatic illness in all Americans. But keeping people from getting sick is now the goal.
On Sunday, Fauci joined CBS News host Margaret Brennan and further discredited the administration’s efforts to liberate Americans from the grips of a perpetual pandemic.
With the holiday season fast approaching, Brennan pressed Fauci about whether Americans should “gather for Christmas.” Fauci replied that it is “just too soon to tell,” and public health officials shouldn’t even engage in speculation about how Americans should prepare for events just two months in the future. “Let’s focus like a laser on continuing to get those cases down,” he said. “And we can do it, by people getting vaccinated.”
But, of course, we can’t do it because, as Fauci told the Atlantic’s audience, vaccines are not approved for young children. Asked by Brennan about the risk to children and their adult relatives presented by intimate family gatherings, Fauci added that “even if you are vaccinated and you are in an indoor setting, a congregate setting, it just makes sense to wear a mask and to avoid high-risk situations.”
Fauci has since clarified his comments to suggest that he didn’t say what he said. “I will be spending Christmas with my family,” the doctor confessed. “I encourage people, particularly the vaccinated people who are protected, to have a good, normal Christmas with your family.” This walk-back suggests that the administration Fauci serves understands his level of risk intolerance is sapping him and the White House of credibility.
Dr. Fauci’s tenuous grasp of elementary political realities has become impossible to ignore. Millions of Americans have acquainted themselves with a new status quo in which pre-vaccine mitigation measures like masking and social distancing are reserved primarily for the unvaccinated. Mass gatherings are no longer forbidden—they’re not even uncommon. Third booster shots are being administered to older Americans because an American administration must serve the American public before it concerns itself with the long-term interests of the globe. And no bureaucracy ever conceived has been able to stop Americans from getting sick.
A first-term administration has one prime political directive: Convince voters that they are better off today than they were during the previous presidency. Rising rates of inflation have robbed Joe Biden of confidence in his ability to steward the economy. The historic debacle his administration engineered in Afghanistan has led to deteriorating faith in Biden’s capabilities as a commander-in-chief. And now, Biden faces a “trust deficit” when it comes to combating the disease. If the public face of the administration’s public health program continues to view basic human nature and tangible political imperatives as abstractions that can be safely disregarded, the administration’s precarious position will only get worse.