Charles U. Zug is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.
Joe Biden began his presidency determined to replace the chaos, corruption, and ineptitude of the Trump Administration with deliberateness, transparency, and competence. He was especially concerned with understanding the nature and scope of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the most urgent challenge on his agenda. As a candidate, Biden had studied the virus relentlessly, surrounding himself with experts and familiarizing himself with all the information he felt he needed to grasp in order to make the right decisions if elected president. Yet in his efforts not to reenact Trump’s mishandlings of the Pandemic—mishandlings born of impetuousness and pig-headedness—Biden the President has adopted an indecisive posture toward Covid that has left many of his former and potential supporters feeling uncertain and anxious about the future. The very decisions that made Biden an assiduous student of public health while he was a candidate have robbed his presidency of the energy it needs to persuade the public that the Federal Government can respond decisively and effectively to the Pandemic in the months, perhaps years, to come.
As he did in most areas of public policy, President Trump enthusiastically disregarded expert assessments of the virus, including assessments from public health experts within his own administration. From the very outset of the pandemic, Trump signaled his disposition toward the virus through public remarks intended to downplay its severity and malign anyone who believed that Covid constituted a genuine threat to public health. Characteristically, instead of outlining the steps that his Administration would take to mitigate the threat that the virus posed to American citizens and the American economy (as the name “Operation Warp Speed” seemed to suggest), Trump himself chose to prosecute a rhetorical campaign against the country where the virus originated, infamously labeling Covid “the China virus.” To be sure, the question of where and with whom Covid originated is by no means irrelevant to future policy decisions; we need to know who or what bears responsibility for it in order to guard against future outbreaks. Yet there is simply no doubt that during the summer and fall of 2020, the more pressing question on the table was how to deal with the outbreak that was then sweeping across the country. For his part, Trump’s public response to this question was, variously, that the pandemic would subside in the very near future, that China deserved blame, and that Covid had been planned by his enemies to undermine his presidency. (1)
Trump’s public statements also appear to have been an accurate reflection of the internal deliberations of the Trump White House. Behind closed doors, Trump simply refused to contemplate the risks posed by Covid. Preferring to remain obstinately optimistic about his reelection chances for November 2020, he organized his staff in a way that incentivized officials to withhold and conceal from him any disturbing information about the virus’ rapid and deadly advance—information that would have forced Trump to acknowledge that, if he did not respond to it in a more competent and systematic way, Covid was likely to cost him his presidency.
Even before the November 2020 election, Joe Biden was voraciously studying Covid. Sometimes to the consternation of his campaign staff, he carved out room in his hectic schedule for in-depth briefings with well-known public health officials. He immersed himself in all the relevant information he could get his hands on, and did his best to obtain the most thorough understanding of Covid humanly possible for a non-scientist. Given the array of decisions Biden had to make and the sheer number of problems he had to solve in order to run an effective campaign in the midst of a pandemic, it is difficult to imagine a more promising response on the part of an aspiring president. (2)
A significant feature of the story I have been telling so far is that, in 2020, Biden was still a candidate but Trump was actually president. One of the basic challenges of being president is facing bad news honestly, and resisting the urge to create an echo-chamber of positive reinforcement within the White House. There is a natural impulse in all of us to shut our eyes to bad news and simply hope it goes away. As anyone who has held a position of authority will testify, that impulse is only strengthened when we have subordinates whose main aim is to present us with good news that pleases us. It takes an uncommonly robust moral constitution for a president to resist the yes-men in their administration, and to press their subordinates for accurate information even when the likelihood is that accurate information spells political disaster.
In the midst of national catastrophes, Trump’s two immediate predecessors found ways to lead the country and help their own political fortunes at the same time. President Bush faced down the 9/11 attacks with courage and resolve, while reassuring the American Muslim community that he would resist any political pressure to make them the country’s scapegoats. As Ben Kleinerman reminded us in a recent essay here at The Constitutionalist, President Obama rallied the nation in response to Hurricane Sandy, a national disaster that could have ruined his presidency (consider Bush’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina seven years before), but that appears to have given him a last minute edge over Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. In these particular instances, Bush and Obama discovered for themselves the logic of the presidential office, outlined over two centuries ago by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist. These presidents recognized how to transform the burden of presidential responsibility into a positive advantage for themselves.
For his part, Donald Trump lacked both the integrity and the self-awareness he would have needed to address Covid in a way that helped the country as well as his own political fortune. His private evasions and public outbursts were coping mechanisms designed to shield his superbly fragile sense of self from the trauma of criticism and impending defeat. Within Trump’s universe, the only alternatives were to evade, dissemble, and shift the blame—or to say nothing. He chose the former, and reaped the consequences.
Roughly a year and a half into Joe Biden’s presidency, it is worth asking how he, too, has navigated the political pitfalls of the Pandemic. Admirably, Biden immersed himself in the study of Covid while he was still a candidate, because he wanted to have a firm grasp on everything he needed to know to make good decisions for the country, should he be elected president. Yet until January 20, 2021, Covid was not Biden’s responsibility, but Trump’s. Biden was free to study the matter, and he did so; but he was not yet on the hook for making authoritative decisions about how to handle the matter.
Analyzing all of President Biden’s decisions related to Covid is impossible in the present moment because we are still in the Pandemic. And even once the Pandemic has completely subsided—whenever that may be—developing a complete and accurate assessment of every relevant decision Biden made, let alone the impact of his decisions on the material reality of American public health, will be a monstrous undertaking. For the time being, it is worth focusing on specific aspects of Biden’s conduct as president that can be reasonably discussed and debated given the present limits of our knowledge.
One aspect of Biden’s leadership I have given some thought to in recent months is the way he, and members of his Administration, have publicly articulated their understanding of the fundamental problem that Covid poses for American society, and of the way they envision possible solutions to that problem. As I have argued elsewhere, under the United States Constitution officeholders are not only obligated to make decisions that are good for the public; they are also obligated to articulate a good public rationale, or set of arguments, for those decisions. Public arguments for and against state action are the mechanism by which members of the public assess the fitness of leaders to hold public office and make authoritative decisions on the public’s behalf. It is principally in light of this standard that I have been thinking about Biden’s performance so far.
Invariably, U.S. presidents find themselves buffeted by competing commitments that derive from the design of the constitutional office they occupy. On the one hand, the President is in charge of the massive information-gathering apparatus that is the Federal Bureaucracy. In the course of American political history, Congress has built out the American State by creating agencies that are responsible for, among many other responsibilities, obtaining and compiling information that the Federal Government needs in order to make informed decisions that concern the public interest. As a consequence, the White House is on the receiving end of a firehose of data and statistics that concern every aspect of American life, from the economy and transportation to the military and public health. While some of this information can be comprehended by an educated non-expert, much of it is derived from scientific inquiry and must therefore undergo several stages of translation and simplification in order to be rendered into a form that is understandable to the President, their staff, and senior administration officials. Beyond the President’s daily briefing is (forgive me for mixing imagery) a vast ocean of facts and figures in which a President could easily drown, should they decide they wanted to fully understand every aspect of public policy before making a decision.
This dilemma points to a second feature of the presidency which exists in considerable tension with the first: presidents need to make decisions. Indeed, decisiveness is part of what it means to be an executive in the first place. By design, Congress is reliably ponderous and lumbering when it comes to deciding on a course of action, because Congress brings together a wide range of competing perspectives and interests and a host of contradicting information sources. But unlike Congress, the President is only one person, called upon by the public and institutionally positioned to make decisions in the moment and to set the agenda for the rest of the unwieldy political system.(3) Perversely, then, the deluge of information generated by Executive Agencies (ostensibly so the president can make an informed decision) can end up hindering the president’s ability to make any decision at all. A president who, quite legitimately, wants to avoid being impulsive can easily become mired in the complexity of the details or, relatedly, over-reliant on process and procedure as substitutes for decisiveness.
As regards the Covid Pandemic, at least, President Biden seems to have fallen into the latter trap, in part because he so strongly desired to avoid repeating Trump’s mistakes. Having immersed himself in all the details and complexities of public health science during his candidacy, Biden as president has either refused or neglected to articulate a positive, forward-looking strategy for meeting the challenge of the Pandemic in the long term.
Tactically speaking, given the American State’s feeble administrative capacity (especially as regards healthcare), the Biden Administration has done an admirable job rolling out vaccines and providing resources for medical officials and infected individuals. But from a broader public perspective, piecemeal tactics are insufficient. From the beginning of his presidency, the position of the Biden’s Administration regarding Covid has been some version of: “We have yet to make any concrete decisions about a plan for moving through Covid because we are attending to the constantly-evolving scientific consensus on the subject.”
As far as public health science is concerned, this position is perfectly fine; scientific findings do constantly change in light of new inputs and ever-refining theories. But good science is not necessarily good policy. Consider this position from the standpoint of a single parent whose job does not afford them the luxury of at-home work, and whose child’s elementary school has been toggling between in-person and remote instruction for the past two years. Even if they are sufficient to cover the parent’s expenses (which they are likely not), Federal subsidies in the form of rent deferments, student loan repayment pauses, and stimulus payments will do precious little to instill this parent with a sense of confidence about the future. Instead, they will be left with the (correct) impression that the Federal Government will continue to vacillate between reopening and total lockdown based on scientific findings they, the parent, lack the time, energy, and expertise to fully understand.
From the perspective of Biden and public health experts within his administration, the decision to simply defer to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as regards masking, social-distancing, and reopening policies looks responsible and deliberative; it seems like a corrective to Trump-style obtuseness and recklessness. But from the perspective of many Americans, it looks unprincipled and capricious because it permits Federal Agencies to pursue whatever course of action they regard as proper, heedless of any common-sense standard of conduct.
What do I mean by a “common-sense standard of conduct”? Let me give a concrete example. Unlike the first two COVID variants, which killed many infected individuals and caused many more to be hospitalized, Omicron was much more contagious but also much less severe. In fact, as the New York Times Covid-19 tracker shows, deaths during the Omicron wave were fewer than deaths during the January 2021 wave—yet peak infections during Omicron (806,795) was nearly four times the number of peak infections during January 2021 (250,506). The Times has also reported vaccinated individuals are overwhelmingly less likely do be hospitalized or die from Covid than are unvaccinated individuals. Today, a majority of Americans and an overwhelming number of seniors, who are much more vulnerable, are fully vaccinated.
There are a few conclusions that any ordinary (non-expert) American could draw from these publicly available findings. The most important is that rising case numbers alone no longer mean what they once did: while contracting Covid still poses a health risk—as does contracting many other diseases we, as a society, have decided we are comfortable living with—far fewer people who contract Covid today will die from it. Translated into practical terms, many people—especially those vaccinated—should feel much more comfortable resuming their normal life activities, including going to work and socializing in public.
Given this new reality, there are two important political interventions President Biden could make, and both would significantly improve his standing with many Americans by showing him to be a leader, not merely a recipient of information.
First, Biden should articulate in clear, uncertain terms precisely the point I just made: the Pandemic is not what it once was, the numbers show that you are much less likely to be hospitalized or die from an infection, and so for the time being you should feel more confident about returning to normal. Those with preexisting conditions and those who are unable or unwilling to get vaccinated, you should of course continue to take precautions. But for people who do not fall in those categories, you don’t have to cower in fear anymore.
The second intervention would be more difficult because it would require concrete action. The President should state that, going forward, the key metric that his administration will attend to in setting Covid policy will not be infection rates but hospitalization and death rates. If subsequent variants continue to be more infectious but significantly less lethal, it no longer makes sense to impose social distancing, indoor mask mandates, and all-out shutdowns on account of rising case numbers alone. The Administration should state specific numbers for deaths and hospitalizations; were hospitalizations and deaths to reach the Administration’s specified numbers, the Federal Government would by all means reauthorize emergency measures. But as long as the virus stays below those numbers, the Administration will resist the urge to reimpose Covid rules just because case numbers start to rise.
To be clear, whatever numbers the Administration settled on should absolutely take the latest public health science into consideration. But settling on those numbers would ultimately require a political decision, not a scientific one. Just as the Federal Government has made the political decision that tens of millions of Flu cases a year, and tens of thousands of Flu deaths a year, do not warrant masking, let alone a shutdown, it also needs to make a decision regarding Covid numbers. What those numbers should be are entirely up for debate—they might be on the high side, they might be on the low side. But the Government does need to decide what kinds of numbers it believes are compatible with the common good of the country.
The President needs a plan for dealing with the Pandemic in the long run, and plans entail hard decisions that invariably alienate some parts of one’s constituency or coalition. The plan sketched above will alienate those who believe that we should not attempt to return to normal life until Covid has been completely eliminated. It will also alienate those who are happy with the government lifting and then reimposing Covid rules based on CDC recommendations. Finally, it will alienate those who prefer life masked-up and in lockdown to life like it was pre-Covid. Biden must decide how to navigate these shoals. Were he to decide that pursuing a more laissez-faire approach is too dangerous, he could commit to a long term “Zero Covid” plan, announcing that mask mandates and social-distancing requirements should remain in place until Covid has been irradicated entirely. It is far from clear that Biden, or any other elected official or party organization, has the political capital and electoral support to pursue such a plan. But if they did, it would at least give the public a sense of stability and predictability.
Since summer 2021, commentators have been wondering why Biden’s poll numbers have declined, why he has not been able to budge them, and why the Democratic Party seems to be facing such an uphill battle going into the 2022 midterms. There are many factors that are responsible for these developments, but I believe the Administration’s open-ended response to Covid is a very important one.
Setting aside the most unreasonable and intransigent of Republican voters, the American public does not blame Biden for the Pandemic; they do not even blame Biden for not fixing the Pandemic, which is clearly beyond his control. What they do blame Biden for is not establishing a set of standards that can be used to hold him and his Administration accountable in the months, and possibly years, going forward. They blame him for not having a plan. Like the Great Depression of the 1930s and 40s, Covid is central to all governmental decision making; how the Federal Government responds to Covid conditions and constrains its ability to respond to everything else, including inflation, unemployment, social justice, and foreign affairs. As long as the American public are told to remain in a holding pattern, CDC pending; as long as the public are uncertain if the next day will bring another lockdown, that will, in turn, result in more unemployment, social isolation, and domestic violence, they will direct their anxiety and frustration at the highest public official in the land.
(1) For an in-depth look at Trump’s response to the Pandemic during his term of office, see Robert Woodward and Robert Costa, Peril (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021), 56, 68-69, 74, 81, 82-84, 113-115, 122-125, 129, 185, 187-189.
(2) See Woodward and Costa, Peril, 55-56, 67, 68, 81-82, 84-85.
(3) For a helpful discussion of the theoretical basis of these institutional design decisions, see Jeffrey Tulis and Nicole Mellow, Legacies of Losing in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), chapter 2.