The First Big Test of the Biden Administration
The rise of the Delta variant and the reaction—or overreaction—is giving everyone a clear case of deja vu.
It was all going according to plan.
Putting aside the reality of an event that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, the dawn of Covid-19 did something President Barack Obama with his thumbs on the scales, the best efforts of the Bush and Clinton dynasties, and four years of deep state intrigue could not: the virus got rid of Donald Trump.
Whether the measures used to counteract the course of the virus were a well-meaning, 9/11-style mistake, as Richard Hanania of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology argues in a new paper, would be a question for another day. Ditto anxieties over whether the Democratic Party had acted as a handmaiden to violence in 2020, effectively excusing the disintegration of American cities as the work of justice-concerned shock troops: those concerns too would be shelved for a post-Trump day.
“People will do what they do,” said the House speaker back then.
Following the defeat of Trump in November, the explicit wish of the establishments of both parties was clear: let’s move forward. With a closely contested Senate, Biden would be a checked centrist, poised to focus on infrastructure, or whatever, and profit from a year of pent-up demand once the country was vaccinated. “The 1920s roared after a pandemic, and the 2020s will try,” pronounced Bloomberg. This was also the thinking on much of the Republican side, from Senate leader Mitch McConnell to the Wall Street Journal ed board. And the Democrats were relieved with the passing of a putative fascist moment.
Fast forward to summer: Donald Trump has, of course, not exactly gone away, and neither has hand-wringing over COVID. The latter reality commands the hour.
“From the moment I was elected, I said I’d always give it to you straight from the shoulder, and we need some straight talk right now,” Biden said from the White House on Thursday. “We need to wear masks to protect each other and to stop the rapid spread of this virus as we work to get more people vaccinated. And I hope all Americans who live in areas with substantial or high case rates will follow the mask guidance that’s being laid down by the CDC. I certainly will. And I have—because this is one of those areas, in Washington.”
Donc c’est vrai.
Among Biden’s directives are a mask mandate for all federal personnel at all federal buildings. “As I’ve said from the beginning, a mask is not a political statement,” Biden said. But this is, of course, politics. Liberal enclaves such as the District of Columbia swiftly followed the president’s lead, and California, among other states, has ramped up measures in recent days. New concerns about COVID-19 possibly contributing to dementia give the U.S. an air of deja vu, with worst-case scenarios bandied about, while red states revolt, all in one nasty, political cocktail. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, potentially Biden’s top rival in the 2024 election, blocked mask mandates in the Sunshine State’s schools as Biden opined from Washington.
There are several implications of Biden’s new tact.
First, the new president has elected to keep Covid at the fore. The president’s defenders would object that the course of the virus has mandated these measures, but the drastically slashed lethality in the age of the vaccine gives credence to those who have long complained that anti-virus measures have a whiff of religion as much as unbiased science or other analysis. And that the justification for the new measures, as the White House itself says, is the preponderance of the still-unvaccinated, raises questions over what, exactly, a step down the road to a new lockdown incentivizes.
But, most notably, time is of the essence. The Biden team’s review of the origins of the virus is due this month. Previous reporting has indicated the National Security Council, led by Jake Sullivan, has found the thesis that the virus came from a lab in China at least as plausible as natural occurrence. The Chinese state maintains, if anything, that it should receive credit for first discovering the virus, in a tragicomic twist of logic.
But as the days get shorter, if the world were to shut down again—all while discovering that one of the two superpowers was responsible for the whole shebang—no one would be laughing for long.