Anything, it seems, except doing the main thing that would save tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives from the pandemic in the coming months.
Let’s recap: for months, while the Bad Man was still president, the United States and world consensus among scientists and liberals was that the only way to stop the rampaging coronavirus — particularly when it is surging out of control, as it has been for months in the United States, and in a globally unprecedented way — was a temporary national stay-at-home order. That approach is still the global consensus, but has simply ceased to exist in US political discourse since November.
This measure would, like anything currently being pursued by Biden and the Democrats (such as successfully impeaching Trump), face obstacles, including a handful of conservative Democrats, a recalcitrant GOP, legal challenges, and the byzantine US federalist system of government. But it’s far from impossible: the idea that Congress could legislate a temporary stay-at-home order was not out of the question during the Trump era, even among constitutional scholars, some of whom argued that the Commerce Clause gave the federal government that power. And of course, Democrats now control the White House, the House, and the Senate, albeit by the slimmest of margins in the latter.
To get it done, a president would need to use the bully pulpit, his electoral mandate, his position at the head of one of the country’s two major parties, and the full power and influence of the Oval Office to build political pressure and an overwhelming public consensus for such an action, a task in which Biden would be fully supported by the science-believing and mawkishly partisan national press.
Think the aftermath of September 11, where the Bush administration took advantage of that tragedy and the jingoistic media landscape it produced to create public support for and push through an array of radical, constitutionally dubious, and sometimes even outright illegal government measures. With more people currently dying per day from the pandemic than died on September 11, this is eminently possible.
No one thinks it would be easy. But given that this was the one overriding issue Biden was arguably elected to deal with — and given the scale of the loss of life expected in the near future — it’s surely worth trying.
But that’s not going to happen. Only two days after assuring the public in his inaugural speech that “we can overcome this deadly virus,” Biden informed them this was, strictly speaking, not totally true.
“There’s nothing we can do to change the trajectory of the pandemic in the next several months,” he said last Friday. “The virus is surging. We’re 400,000 dead, expected to reach well over 600,000.” A day earlier, Biden had similarly assured the public that half a million Americans would be dead by February alone.
This is, to put it mildly, stunning. The figure of four hundred thousand dead under Trump was already a near-incomprehensible number, one the former president was deservedly and widely pilloried and eventually thrown out of office over. The news in May that Trump’s inaction early on in the pandemic caused at least 36,000 needless deaths alone was widely and rightly pointed to as a prime example of his recklessness, incompetence, and lack of leadership, by everyone from Hillary Clinton and Biden ally Chris Coons, to Biden himself.
Now, Biden is blithely admitting that within the first few months of his presidency, Americans can expect half of Trump’s coronavirus body count to pile up, or roughly five times that thirty-six thousand figure. It would seem an ideal time to take urgent, bold action not taken by his predecessor. But as Biden assured a worried nation, there’s unfortunately “nothing we can do.”
This was not always his position. Last year, he had initially said he would “listen to the scientists” and “shut it down,” before repeatedly ruling out pursuit of a national stay-at-home order, even saying there was “no circumstance” under which he would do so — including, presumably, the two hundred thousand deaths he’s predicting will come in the next few months.
Like others who have done a 180 degree turn on this question, Biden isn’t citing legal limitations or other obstacles, which would give his administration an easy out. Nor is that what prompted his shift. He first walked back the idea under a barrage of GOP attacks, and has since justified it on distinctly Trumpian grounds (“I am not going to shut down the economy”).
It’s not all Biden, of course. The once-pervasive idea has abruptly vanished from the mouths of the supposedly science-venerating press or public health experts who once loudly demanded it when Trump was in power, including some of those currently advising Biden on his COVID policy.
The legacy print and television media is still the most powerful reality-shaping tool in our world and could do much to build up momentum for the idea, especially now that the “party of science” controls the entire federal government. With a concerted media campaign behind it, even a nonbinding order from the federal government giving states specific guidelines for closing and re-opening could have an impact. At the very least, they could bring Russiagate-like attention to the institutional roadblocks in US government that have made it so hard to deal with a crisis like this.
But these entities are, in large part, following Biden’s lead. The sudden onset of their deafening silence coincided with Biden’s ruling out of the idea, with his own staff and science advisors rushing to admonish one of their colleagues for suggesting the US government fully underwrite a four-to-six-week national lockdown for people and businesses.
In many ways, the idea already has broad legitimacy with the public. Despite a loud, right-wing minority in the United States swearing furious opposition to any such measure, a national stay-at-home order has broad public support across the country, as shown by this recent four-university study of more than twenty-five thousand Americans, which found support for such restrictions hadn’t changed from when the survey was last conducted in November.
In fact, the only measure that has lost a significant chunk of support between then and now was restricting international travel, which, ironically, happens to be the only one of the seven restrictions polled that Biden has, quite sensibly, imposed since entering office.
Other measures with broad public support include restricting interstate travel — which Congress has the power to do — and keeping in-person schooling closed, making Biden’s current push to reopen them against both scientific findings and the wishes of teachers unions particularly inexplicable. But the most important thing he could do, at the very, very least, is work with Congress to pass a comprehensive and generous relief package that would, if nothing else, allow densely populated and Democrat-governed states like California to grit their teeth and endure some months more of lockdown, instead of reopening prematurely due to political considerations.
Unfortunately, Biden isn’t offering this kind of leadership. Six senior Democrats told Politico the new president hadn’t outlined an agenda for the incoming Congress, and according to multiple reports, Biden is delaying urgent action on any bill because of his insistence on weeks-long negotiations with eight “moderate” Republicans, a number that is two short of the GOP support he’d need to actually pass anything. Meanwhile, the pointless impeachment trial of Trump threatens to take up the precious time the Senate needs to move any such legislation along.
It’s striking to compare this reality with the celebratory, almost religiously ecstatic spectacle of last week’s inauguration. The world of limitless hope and possibility described then bears little resemblance to the US political landscape that exists now, one in which its entire liberal political spectrum — from its politicians and its press to its scientists — has declared the clearest solution to the deadly virus running rampant through the country simply off-limits, and decided there’s no alternative to letting potentially hundreds of thousands more people die.
In a rational world, failure this dreadful would spur serious, concerted overhaul of a political system and culture that have made it near-impossible to respond properly to such a crisis. Far more likely, the establishment will simply eat these deaths and claim success with a weary heart. It was all Trump’s fault, after all. What was anyone to do?