It’s Joe Biden’s virus now.
The COVID-19 pandemic unfolded during the presidency of Donald Trump and contributed to his defeat a year later. Now the virus is dominating the presidency of Mr. Biden, who faces a furious new surge in the number of new cases, new hospitalizations and new deaths, along with a resurgence of rebellion against governmental health restrictions and advisories.
Against that backdrop and amid holiday preparations that have already been altered by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, a grave Mr. Biden delivered an uncharacteristically sombre assessment of the threat (“We’re still in it”), along with assurances that “We are prepared today for what’s coming” and that Americans who have been fully vaccinated, who received a booster shot and who exercise caution can have a relatively normal holiday season.
“We should all be concerned about Omicron,” he said, “but not panicked.”
Facing a second COVID Christmas and with optimism for the new year at the lowest in more than a decade, according to a Marist Poll released hours before the Biden remarks, the President’s political tool box is nearly empty.
Like the Federal Reserve System, which after the Great Recession of 2008 ran through most of its economic instruments, there are few conventional implements left for the COVID-19 fight after physical distancing, masks, partial and full shutdowns and vaccines. The Fed created extraordinary lending facilities to address the financial crisis, and Mr. Biden is taking emergency steps by creating federal testing sites, increasing vaccination clinics, buying 500 million testing kits to distribute free to the public and mobilizing military personnel to assist hospitals overburdened by the surge produced by the Omicron variant.
“The question is how much more is possible for him to do, given the huge pushback on social distancing and vaccines,” said Max Skidmore, a University of Missouri-Kansas City political scientist and expert on presidential responses to health threats. “He is in charge and the new variant emerged on his watch. The buck stops with him.”
Political scientists say that the American presidency’s greatest asset is the power to persuade, a notion first advanced by the scholar Richard Neustadt, a one-time Harry Truman aide whose landmark Presidential Power (1960, revised 1990) was a handbook for both John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Mr. Neustadt, still regarded as a pioneer in presidential studies, spoke of “the bargaining advantages inherent in [the president’s] job with which to persuade other men that what he wants of them is what their own responsibilities require them to do.’’
Mr. Biden is trying to exert that power in two dimensions – on a micro scale, with lawmakers of his own party, and on a macro scale, with the public in addresses like the one he delivered Tuesday, when he said of vaccination, “You have an obligation to yourselves, to your family and – I know I will be criticized for this – to your country.”
In that endeavour – in Mr. Biden’s case relentless, remorseless and with scant result – he is discovering the limits of his power.
Nonetheless, he powered ahead Tuesday, acknowledging that the virus is “a tough adversary;” beseeching Americans to become vaccinated and get a third shot (“Folks, the booster shots are free and widely available”); cautioning that vaccination was not enough (“Even if you’re fully vaccinated, you should wear a mask” indoors and in groups); attacking what he called “dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media;” and arguing that virus requirements for employees are designed “not to control your life but to save your life.”
Mr. Biden has been president for almost a year, a period of crisis crowded with conflict in the Middle East; a hurried, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan; growing political polarization; mounting inflation; and a persistent virus – perhaps the most difficult a start to a presidency since the Great Depression ascendancy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose ambitious New Deal economic and social plans he once dreamed of emulating.
Those hopes always were imperilled in a virtually deadlocked Congress but were extinguished earlier this week when a critical Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said he could not support the social and environmental legislation that the President of his own party considered vital to his legacy.
But like Mr. Trump, the great test – and, ultimately the great arbiter of his place in the pantheon of presidents – rests with the virus. In that regard, Mr. Biden inherited the defining challenge of the era from his predecessor, just as Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam War from Lyndon Johnson.
But there the historical parallels and the conventional expectations reach their limits. In the modern era, many of the hardy assumptions of American politics have been repealed or superseded. In ordinary times, Mr. Trump might have taken credit for the swift emergence of COVID-19 vaccines developed in large measure under Operation Warp Speed, which he announced in May, 2020. Instead, Mr. Trump has not promoted the vaccines he helped create and actually was booed by supporters on Sunday when he said, as Mr. Biden said in his Tuesday remarks, he had had a booster shot
The coronavirus has never been far from Mr. Biden’s mind – or from his agenda. Like FDR with the Great Depression and then the Second World War, or Lyndon Johnson with the Vietnam conflict, or Bill Clinton with his scandal-propelled impeachment, Mr. Biden lives with a stubborn preoccupation that he knows will define history’s verdict.
“Presidents think they can control their fate,” said Sidney Milkis, a University of Virginia political scientist. “But they are tasked with facing contingencies, and those contingencies have become more dramatic over the years.” With more than 800,000 American COVID-19 deaths – about double the toll of the Second World War in about half the time – the dramatic has become tragic.
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