Of the many rationales that justified a vote for Joe Biden in 2020, the one the president’s campaign preferred most was that he would rein in the out-of-control pandemic and restore a sense of normalcy.
“As president,” Biden said at the Democratic Party’s nominating convention, “the first step I will take will be to get control of the virus that’s ruined so many lives.” Specifically, he observed, we could not restore the economy, get kids back in the classroom, and take “our lives back” until the pandemic had been checked. “I will take care of this,” Biden promised during an October presidential debate. “I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan.”
According to the Washington Post, that plan was “a far more muscular federal approach” than the one preferred by Donald Trump. His advisers insisted that it was ready to go on day one. And even though it did not differ much from the Trump plan, it nevertheless emphasized a singular objective that was both desirable and imminently achievable: contain the pandemic and reopen society.
Since Inauguration Day, however, the Biden administration has telegraphed mixed signals about when or even if we will ever be able to enjoy post-pandemic America. This White House and its allies rarely speak with one voice on the matter. Indeed, executive-branch agencies and appointees regularly contradict one another. And some have even begun to lay the rhetorical groundwork that would justify pandemic-related restrictions in perpetuity.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci often insists, the accelerating pace of COVID-19 vaccine distribution suggests that “by the fall of 2021, we can start approaching some degree of normality.” It’s not terribly comforting that we will only be “approaching” a “degree” of normality, but, despite the self-indemnifying ambiguity, at least Fauci articulated a clear goal: “normality.” Others within the public health community aren’t so confident.
“Going through the five phases of grief, we need to come to the acceptance phase that our lives are not going to be the same,” insisted former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden. “I don’t think the world has really absorbed the fact that these are long-term changes.” That could mean everything from pandemic-related restrictions on social interaction to public masking, testing and temperature-taking regimes, and indoor ventilation standards. As the Wall Street Journal reported, all of this contributes to a “potentially lucrative COVID-19 industry” that, while onerous for most, has been very good to a few.
So far, the Biden administration has tried to have it both ways—coddling those who appear to welcome a perpetual pandemic while assuring those who don’t that deliverance is near at hand. In a pre-Super Bowl interview with CBS News, President Biden said that it was necessary and possible for schools to reopen safely in accordance with CDC guidelines, which will be forthcoming shortly (never mind that the CDC produced just such a set of guidelines as far back as last August). But a sprawling White House COVID-19 strategy memo released by the Biden White House last month also provides for the possibility that “new coronavirus variants that may have a higher transmission rate” might forestall the resumption of full-day, in-person education. And, in a late January call with teachers’ unions’ representatives, Fauci said that those variants, which “may” be more resistant to vaccines, are likely to scuttle the president’s desire to see K-8 classrooms reopen nationally.
The confusion doesn’t end there.
“It’s not just a vaccine [which is] obviously an incredible medical breakthrough, and we want everyone to have one,” said Press Secretary Jen Psaki last week. “But even after you’re vaccinated, social distancing [and] wearing masks will be essential.” But according to the CDC, the efficacy of vaccines that have received emergency FDA approval is such that it “protects you from getting sick with COVID-19.” There may be social benefits in behaving as though being fully immunized does not confer any protection to the virus—for example, communicating to non-vaccinated people that masking is appropriate. But this is a political message, not a scientific one.
Likewise, Psaki took the abnormal step of undermining CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s authority after the latter had the audacity to say what we know to be a fact: “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely re-open and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated.” The notion that “vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for opening schools” may comport with the data, but it also weakens a negotiating position adopted by some especially obdurate teachers’ unions. Dr. Walensky, Psaki insisted, was only speaking in her “personal capacity.” Oddly, the White House elected to make this supposedly personal statement, which Walensky made during a press conference with reporters from behind the James Brady Briefing Room’s lectern, part of the public record.
And as some states begin to relax COVID-related restrictions and the winter surge of cases subsides, Biden officials are retreating to the language that typified the earliest days of the pandemic. “100 Days of masking to bend the curve,” Chief of Staff Ron Klain remarked. “Is that too much to ask?” Not only is his reversion to the rhetoric of last March disconcerting, it seems utterly untethered to the metrics around the pandemic, which include not just case rates but deaths and hospitalizations as well. The “curve” is not just bending. It is collapsing. That trajectory is surely aided to some degree by the rapid dissemination of vaccines. It would be unwise to take a premature victory lap, but it is inexplicably hidebound to pretend as though there has been no progress at all over the last month.
Underlying all this is an arguably prudent fear that the disease will mutate in a way that renders it uncontrollable again, and anyone who had one optimistic word to say today will be made to account for their faulty predictions at some terrible point in the near future. But soon enough, that prudence will conflict directly with President Biden’s self-set political imperative to restore the pre-pandemic status quo. Whether he wants one or not, a fight is coming, and Biden will have to choose sides.