A moment’s sympathy, please, for Joe Biden. Five months ago, when he basically declared victory over the pandemic in a big July 4 speech, it seemed possible that a kind of victory really was at hand: not the eradication of the virus, but a world where rising vaccination rates and pre-existing immunity would soon reduce Covid-19 to a sickness not so much worse than the seasonal flu.
That hasn’t happened yet, but it was a reasonable hope, given the facts as they looked then. And some of the forces that have postponed the hoped-for victory are simply beyond any president’s control.
The most important of these forces is the adaptability of the virus itself, manifest both in its variants, Delta and now Omicron, and also in the way that Covid’s death-dealing power has endured, despite all the weapons we now have against it. As David Wallace-Wells noted recently for New York magazine, in theory current rates of vaccination, particularly among the elderly, “should mean that a large share of the country’s overall mortality risk has been eliminated.” But instead the virus keep finding a way into new networks of the unprotected, killing people as it moves.
The forces that have kept our vaccination rates lower than they ought to be are likewise somewhat outside the president’s ability to master. Biden can’t magically eliminate our society’s general mistrust, disconnection and paranoia. Nor can he sweep away the mix of cynicism and sincerity (fatal sincerity, in some cases) with which too many conservative politicians and media personalities have indulged anti-vaccine sentiment.
But it’s possible to extend this sympathy to Biden and also hold him accountable for the things he can control or influence. For one thing, his challenges aren’t unique: The whole world has had to deal with the unpredictability of the virus, and the United States is not the only rich nation with a lot of vaccine skepticism. And if this White House has been a victim of events, it has also cooperated in its own victimization, taking a somewhat passive approach to the changing pandemic.
The most obvious examples of this passivity are booster shots and at-home testing. A big push for boosters should have begun once we had reasonable evidence of waning vaccine effectiveness — which is to say, in late summer or early fall. Instead Biden promised boosters but the public health bureaucracy resisted, and we had a period of partial availability and mixed messaging that gave way to general recommendation only around Thanksgiving. As a result, in booster shots, the United States is behind countries like Britain — not because of Fox News or vaccine hesitancy, but because the executive branch lost months to internal disagreement.
At-home rapid testing, meanwhile, has been a long-running disaster, with the United States lagging many European countries in making these tests available and cheap, thanks in part to the same kind of bureaucratic overcaution that delayed the booster rollout. And almost a year into this presidency, the Biden White House now plans to widen access to these tests by having insurers reimburse their cost — adding a layer of bureaucratic hassle for consumers, instead of just spending more money directly to make them all but free.
Then alongside those clear failures, there’s been a wider dearth of energy and imagination. Once Delta arrived in earnest, for instance, there was no national attempt to do something truly radical to reach the unvaccinated. (Paying out large vaccine bonuses was the wild idea that I and others floated at the time.) Instead it was back to masking and full speed ahead with a federal vaccine mandate that’s been litigated ever since — the former imposing dubious Covid theater on heavily-vaccinated blue states, the latter further solidifying the Covid culture war.
Similarly, the administration hasn’t shown all that much creativity or urgency around the distribution and approval of therapeutic treatments — both the ones we have, monoclonal antibodies especially, and the ones we might have soon, like the promising Paxlovid pill from Pfizer. As winter nears the White House is promising “strike teams” (presumably like those deployed by Ron DeSantis in Florida over the summer) to help with antibody treatment. But amid the summer wave, American hospitals nationwide had used only about half of the monoclonal antibody supply distributed to them — a failure of public-health organization that if it had happened under Trump would have been laid instantly at his administration’s feet.
And here a contrast is worth noting: Trump’s rhetoric during the pandemic was an utter disaster and his White House made all manner of mistakes, but the Trump team did some big things well outside the usual Republican comfort zone — the economic rescue package and (above all) Operation Warp Speed. Whereas when Covid failed to weaken as expected, the Biden team was more cautious, predictable and slow.
Early on, this White House’s spending agenda evoked comparisons to New Deal liberalism. Now its public health agenda needs a little more of F.D.R.’s “bold, persistent experimentation.” Otherwise, both for Democrats’ political fortunes and for the lives of thousands more Americans, the post-Covid era may arrive too late.