An exhausted and impatient nation needs the kind of clarity and leadership only a president can provide as the coronavirus pandemic reaches a potentially decisive stage.
President Joe Biden’s responsibilities go far beyond the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue plan on the launchpad in Congress, a federal effort to swiftly accelerate vaccines and a push to get more relief to millions of unemployed.
There have been some signs in recent weeks that an injection of new White House urgency has improved the organization of the anti-Covid-19 effort and coordination with state governors who cried out for months for help.
But on his first official trip outside Washington on Tuesday to Wisconsin, highlighted by a presidential appearance at a CNN town hall at 9 p.m. ET, Biden faces urgent questions about how much of normal life can resume in the months to come.
After four weeks in the White House — which his team used to understand the full scope of Donald Trump’s negligence on the pandemic while Washington was consumed by the ex-President impeachment trial — Biden is now in a position to assume responsibility and, if necessary, blame for the federal effort.
With millions of parents anguished over the plight of their kids — many of whom haven’t attended in-person classes for a year, he is under pressure to set expectations on school openings that his team has so far struggled to provide.
The country wants to know whether a swift fall in new infections after a holiday surge is the start of the end of the nightmare. Can the White House speed up its promise for sufficient vaccine doses for everyone by the end of summer? Or should we brace for yet another wave of sickness and death because of proliferating variants may challenge the effectiveness of the program?
And how do states balance political and economic pressure to lift restrictions on businesses such as restaurants as cases ease, knowing that letting up could give a mutating pathogen a new opening? Trump’s irresponsible pressure for a swift reopening last year for his own political reasons helped cause a horrible summer surge across the Sun Belt. Yet with many governors from both parties desperate to restore freedoms, an attempt by Biden to counsel patience could cause further political discord.
Steeling national resolve
Biden also faces a more fundamental task that falls to presidents in times of crisis. He must craft a national narrative about the current scale of the challenge and chart a path to the light in a way that might restore morale amid the darkest winter of modern times.
With nearly half a millions citizens dead, he leads a country emotionally and mentally beaten down by nearly a year of isolation and separation. The psychological pressure is exacerbated by the fear of contracting Covid-19 experienced by anyone on an errand as simple as going to the supermarket.
It’s much worse for essential and manual workers who lack the luxury of working from home.
Biden is well suited to the pastoral aspects of the presidency, after enduring a life of tragedy. But the test he faces in summoning national resolve and is more daunting than for any new president since Franklin Roosevelt.
Four weeks ago, in his inaugural address, Biden sought to steel Americans for the fight ahead, to instill hope that it would be inevitably won and to call for unity, without which he argued a rebound was impossible.
Tuesday’s town hall will also give the President a first chance to publicly address the aftermath of the impeachment trial.
After keeping his distance from the drama in the Senate, Biden bought himself the room to perform a healing role in its wake. In a written statement on Saturday, he pleaded with Americans to “end this uncivil war and health the very soul of our nation.”
Hope or a false dawn?
Biden does have good news to share. A total of 39 states are showing downward trends in Covid-19 infections. Compared to a month ago, the US is recording 58% fewer new cases of the coronavirus. On Sunday, the country recorded nearly 65,000 new cases. The last time that number was between 60,000 and 70,000 was at the end of October, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
While deaths are averaging a staggering 3,000 a day, those figures are expected to soon start falling as well since fatalities are a lagging indicator. Medical experts put the improving picture down to the easing of the Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year holiday spike in infections. Social distancing measures may also be having an effect, but it’s probably too early to conclude that vaccinations being rolled out are a major contributor.
But there is sign of hope here as well. Daily inoculation totals are now around 1.6 million. A total of 70 million doses have been distributed. More than 53 million have been administered — though only 4.3% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Still, Biden’s administration is on track to exceed his promise to get 100 million vaccines in arms by the end of his first 100 days in office.
But in a crisis this dire, every hour brings new challenges.
While Biden has restored almost daily briefings by government scientists, which were missing for many months under Trump, a proliferation of voices have sometimes caused confusion. This has increased pressure for clear and realistic messaging from the President. Biden’s dialogue with the country has been complicated by the strict Covid-19 restrictions taken by his team, partly to set an example for Americans, that have curtailed his travel.
In normal times, the new president might have been expected to make an address to a Joint Session of Congress by now — a priceless chance to put some policy meat on the more aspirational rhetoric of his inaugural address.
Confusion on schools and vaccinations
One area that still needs work is the coordination between Washington and the states. The bipartisan National Governors Association wrote to Biden asking for clarity on who can get vaccinated and when as well as broader issues related to distribution.
“Due to the anxiety created by the demand and supply of the vaccine, it is imperative that the American people fully understand the process,” the letter said, and included a complaint that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting on vaccines distributed to states and administered was confusing the public.
The association warned of similar uncertainty surrounding the federal government’s dispatch of vaccines direct to pharmacies.
The question of school opening also remains deeply hazy. And some Republicans, eager to reverse Democratic gains in the suburbs in the 2020 elections, have seized the frustration of parents, accusing the White House of cowering before powerful teachers unions.
In the latest iteration of the White House position last week, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was committed to making sure schools are open five days a week once safety measures are in place. Earlier in the week she appeared to set the target for success at one day a week. The message from the CDC has often been difficult to understand as well. Last week, the agency released a new five step strategy to get schools back to in-person instruction — including wearing of masks and social distancing, but insisted it was not mandating that schools should open.
A CNN analysis of federal data on Monday showed that 89% of children in the US live in a county considered a red zone for Covid-19 infection. If proper mitigation cannot be carried out in such areas, high school and middle school kids should remain in virtual learning, according to CDC guidelines. And on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that though teacher vaccinations were not a “prerequisite” for a return to school, the guidance suggested that those with high risk conditions should be prioritized or have virtual learning options.
Education is an issue that is as much the responsibility of the states and local jurisdictions as the federal government. Those local authorities badly need the tens of billions in funding included in the Covid-19 rescue plan to make schools safe.
But Biden did run for office stressing his capacity to overhaul the chaotic and neglectful approach to the pandemic of the Trump administration. Problems that others can’t solve end up on the President’s desk. And it is indisputable now, that there is massive confusion about how and when schools will reopen.
Schools are a totemic issue for many Americans — and are also crucial to freeing up parents to return to the work force to ease the economic crash. If Biden can get America’s kids back in class safely, he would make huge strides towards lifting the national mood — and making a success of the early months of his administration.