The Memo: Biden’s COVID-19 bet comes with deep risks
President Biden is boosting the nation’s hopes that an end to the worst of the coronavirus pandemic could be close at hand.
It’s a gambit that will pay big political dividends for the new president if he is proven right — but one that carries serious risks if anything goes awry.
Biden said Tuesday that there will be enough vaccinations for every adult American by the end of May. That is a significant acceleration on his previous timeline, which projected the landmark would be hit in July.
The White House has been careful about managing expectations on the coronavirus, and it is unlikely Biden would have made the pledge without a high degree of confidence that it could be fulfilled. A new deal for Merck to help manufacture additional doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine has helped speed up the timeline.
Still, some experts worry the president may be too optimistic, even as he cautioned that challenges lie ahead and made the distinction between the total number of vaccinations that would be available and whether those shots would actually be in Americans’ arms by spring.
“I do think he risks overpromising,” said Larry Gostin, a Georgetown Law professor specializing in public health. “He underpromised on the number of vaccines at the beginning, and this may be an overpromise. We have a long way to go, to get from here to there, and there are a lot of barriers.”
The distribution infrastructure for the vaccines is almost as complicated as their development, medical experts say.
Gostin listed not just the logistical and infrastructural demands but also the need to overcome the suspicion of vaccinations in minority communities that have suffered egregious treatment at the hands of the medical profession in the past. The scars of scandals like the Tuskegee Experiment still run deep.
“I applaud the idea of trying to get to full vaccination,” Gostin added, “but I think the end of May is highly unlikely. It is much more likely that we will get our population vaccinated by mid- to late summer.”
Biden understands the imperative to avoid the mistakes of his immediate predecessor. Former President Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat from COVID-19, insisting in its early days that it would be contained, suggesting at times that it would simply “disappear” and talking up the powers of experimental treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, which did not live up to his billing.
But Biden and his team still want to show progress on the issue, which remains the dominant one in American life.
For the moment, Biden is enjoying high marks on his handling of the pandemic. An Economist-YouGov poll this week showed 52 percent of those who took the survey approving of his response to COVID-19 and just 35 percent disapproving.
Part of any president’s job is to give people some confidence that things will get better and that difficulties will be overcome.
“He has been careful to make clear that he is not saying the whole thing will be behind us by the end of May,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
Reeher added: “While it is possible to be too optimistic, it is also possible to be too pessimistic. I mean, the president does need to give the American public reasons for hope — we have seen that since FDR. I think [Biden] is beginning to do that, and I think now is the time for it.”
Some recent presidents have come to rue premature declarations of success.
During Biden’s time as vice president under former President Obama, the administration sought to brand 2010 as “recovery summer” in the wake of the financial crisis and the Great Recession. The economy limped along rather than rising to their projections, and the slogan became an embarrassment that was rarely mentioned.
Even that was not as bad, nor as serious, as then-President George W. Bush’s famous appearance in front of a huge “Mission Accomplished” banner on board an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, during a brief moment of optimism about the Iraq War in 2003.
Chaos and bloodshed spiraled in Iraq in subsequent years, and Bush’s speech came to encapsulate a hubris that, according to his critics, had permeated his whole attitude toward Iraq and the war on terror.
There is no real suggestion that Biden’s current pronouncements carry that level of political danger. But even so, a nation that is bruised and restless after roughly a year of battling the coronavirus could react in a volatile way to any setbacks.
There is, too, an additional danger: that the increased confidence from the administration could feed into a sense of public complacency.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced this week that his state would fully reopen for business and drop its mask mandate, alarming some health experts.
Biden pushed back hard against the move on Wednesday, blasting “Neanderthal thinking” around dropping rules for face coverings.
“I think it’s a big mistake. Look, I hope everybody’s realized by now, these masks make a difference. We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we’re able to get vaccines in people’s arm,” Biden said.
Those remarks underline the delicate dance Biden needs to execute now and in the coming months — encouraging hope without sparking overconfidence.
Complacency “is a very big risk,” said Gostin, the Georgetown expert. “We are dealing with COVID fatigue, we are dealing with a false sense of optimism in the short term, and we are dealing with the variants [of the virus].
“That is a dangerous combination.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.