The president has tested positive for the coronavirus.
Maybe, just maybe, a divided country that turned its response to a virus into tribal warfare can take this moment to lay down arms and declare a truce. The president has Covid. Now what?
Even at his advanced age, President Biden enjoys substantial protection as a vaccinated and double boosted adult with access to available therapeutics like Paxlovid. The vice president, the octogenarian speaker of the House and much of the president’s cabinet and congressional leadership have already had Covid, so this is the final test of whether this news is news or more like a weather report. If we have reached the point that a president testing positive elicits a shrug, it’s the clearest signal yet that, wisely or not, we’ve turned the page.
The White House reports that the president’s symptoms are mild, and one hopes he is spared long-term harm, brain fog and fatigue, which may be less apparent but more insidious. The BA.5 Omicron subvariant has been especially agile in infecting and reinfecting even people who were still “being careful,” which has introduced a certain fatalism to the conversation — even though hundreds of people are still dying every day from Covid-19. People who are immunocompromised may feel even more vulnerable as the rest of the world moves on. But Covid death statistics, like those accompanying most car crashes, have receded from front-page news. So now we will see whether a positive P.C.R. test in the Oval Office amounts to something like the president having a cold.
Every president is a Rorschach test on whom citizens project hopes, doubts, dreams and deep night terrors. From the start, the pandemic was a pageant of personal choices and rolling risk assessments. Once it became a prime medium of tribal signaling, it tested how Americans weight our values: liberty, privacy, compassion, community. Now that the virus has breached the defenses of the most protected sanctuary on the planet, it adds another test — this one of truth, transparency and risk tolerance.
Health experts can debate whether the president’s recent decisions were routine or reckless — to return to regular travel, meeting, greeting, presidenting his way along the road to normal. Partisans on both sides will draw their own moral to the story: that this shows prevention efforts were always misguided, that trying to avoid Covid is like trying to avoid sunlight. Or this shows that mask mandates ended too soon and mitigation is forever. But for the leader of the free world, maybe this is a way of modeling, especially to those ZIP codes where people still wear masks on empty beaches, that it’s time to move on. We’ve reached the phase where a virus that shut down the world can now reach the Oval Office and not stop the presses or crash the markets. The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, signaled business as usual while Mr. Biden isolates: The president “will continue to carry out all of his duties fully during that time,” she said, noting that he “will participate in his planned meetings at the White House this morning via phone and Zoom from the residence.”
Historically, of course, such statements didn’t always survive scrutiny. Real-time reports on Donald Trump’s condition when he tested positive for the coronavirus in October 2020 turned out to wildly understate how sick he was. In the days before vaccines became available, a 74-year-old on statins was already at high risk; we’ve since learned that when Mr. Trump was sick, his blood oxygen dipped into the 80s, he was given powerful steroids and he had to be put on oxygen. And even as the White House physician, Dr. Sean Conley, insisted the president was “doing great,” his aides scrambled for access to still experimental treatments.
The Trump administration was hardly the first to hide a president’s disability; that is more the rule than the exception. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed, with a reportedly impaired ability to lead on his own; Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack and a stroke while in office; John Kennedy had Addison’s disease. Transparency in matters related to the health of heads of state is seldom the norm. There are natural reasons for this — pride, privacy and national security among them. Markets move, and potentially armies as well, in appraisal of a president’s state of mind and body.
But Covid now presents a different challenge. If Mr. Biden develops serious and debilitating symptoms, the White House has a strong obligation to disclose it. But if, as is statistically more likely, he weathers infection with little disruption to his daily routine, then he becomes just like a majority of Americans, who’ve also had the virus at least once. Promising “an abundance of transparency,” the White House indicated it would offer daily updates on the president’s progress.
If all goes well, this will be a nonstory … and that’s the story.
Maybe we can take it as an invitation to put lingering partisan reflexes aside, celebrate the triumphs of science and the twist in the plot: that this threat that has hovered over the planet for two years is now evolving into something else. Still a scourge, but one against which we have weapons and shields, freeing us to set about rebuilding all that the past two years of distraction and destruction tore down.
Get well soon, Mr. President.
Nancy Gibbs is the Edward R. Murrow professor of practice of press, politics and public policy and the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.
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