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Biden’s COVID-19 strategy: lockdowns, mask mandates and more

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President-elect Joe Biden is likely to impose stiff COVID-19 response measures on America once in office.  

Biden staked his campaign’s closing argument on coronavirus, attempting to draw the starkest and most salient contrast with President Trump. Having narrowly won on this central commitment, he must not just confront coronavirus, but he must be definitively seen doing so.  

Biden’s campaign message changed after his formal nomination in August. Prior to the Democratic National Convention, his message focused primarily on race; at the finish, it aimed at combating coronavirus. This important and likely determinative message migration is captured by comparing his nomination acceptance speech and his second debate performance.  

In his acceptance speech he stated America was facing “four historic crises.” Coronavirus was one of them, but he largely emphasized race relations. For example, Biden opened with a message on race by quoting Ella Baker, who he referred to as “a giant” in the fight for civil rights, “Give people light and they will find a way.” He used Baker’s “light” throughout his speech, then he closed it with, “May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight as love and hope and light joined in the battle for the soul of the nation.”  

In the second debate, his lines highlighted the pandemic virus more than endemic racism. He sought to tie America’s current problems to COVID-19 and COVID-19 to Trump, “Anyone who is responsible for not taking control…responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States.” Biden’s message to the nation was clear: Four more years of Trump would mean four more years of coronavirus.  

Staking his closing argument for election on coronavirus means Biden is also pre-committed to beginning his administration by attacking it in a big way. Focusing attention means raising expectations. Biden must be seen taking dramatic action — presenting an immediate contrast.

Certainly, attention immediately turns to more stimulus spending. Trump’s administration and House Democrats reportedly were around $2 trillion before time ran out on their talks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has opened the door to renewed discussions during this year’s lame-duck session. Expect these negotiations to continue until an agreement is reached, whether in the lame-duck or with the new Congress next year.    

Whenever it occurs, additional stimulus will be trumpeted, but dollars have been thrown at the coronavirus before. Dollars alone, even in unprecedented amounts, will not give Biden the contrast he needs. Biden will need actions that change behavior in a dramatic — and likely enforceable — way.   

The evidence Biden will seek to do this — and what these actions could be — have been signaled in general, and by Biden’s camp in particular. Coronavirus lockdowns have been most stringent and longest under the bluest governments. Proclivity played no small part in this: These governments felt the need, but they were also very comfortable with the means.  

The left is comfortable with statist solutions and Biden wants to remain comfortable with his left — the base with which he must govern. He will be pushed this direction both by policy and political arguments.  

Biden has also shown he will not have to be pushed hard. He stated long ago that he favored a mask mandate. More recently, his team has been clearer still, stating he wants masks mandated in every state “by working with governors and mayors.”  Look for Biden to build on that intention and push proposals to enforce changes on individual behavior.  

Biden’s advisors offer insight into how much more he might seek to build from there. On Nov. 11, Biden COVID-19 advisor, Dr. Michael Osterholm, stated, “We could pay for a package right now to cover all of the wages, lost wages for individual workers, for losses to small companies, to medium-sized companies or city, state, county governments…If we did that, then we could lock down for four to six weeks.” Earlier this summer, Osterholm, who is also a member of Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board wrote in an opinion piece, “To be effective, the lockdown has to be as comprehensive and strict as possible.”  

Biden’s narrow win means he faces a tough scenario. Having raised expectations, he will have to deliver — and be seen doing so. Simultaneously, he confronts a closing window. While America’s federal debt is rising, the public’s patience is diminishing. Both could well be exacerbated by aggressive Biden actions. 

Even a massive stimulus will buy Biden only a little time in which to achieve results. America may have a unique fiscal reality, allowing it to assume more debt than most, but it does not have immunity. There will be public and political resistance to piling on more debt indefinitely — especially if it is viewed as compensating for private sector activity.  

On the societal side, a return to lockdowns would be unwelcome. A Biden imposition of lockdowns-plus could be even more so. It is unclear how long or how much the public will tolerate — the clock will be ticking away the time bought by additional stimulus.  

Biden’s predicament is clear. He must make a big splash but that is impossible to do without rocking the boat. Biden’s challenge will be to make a big enough coronavirus splash to command attention, but not one so big that it capsizes the nation’s ship.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.

Tags 2020 election Biden victory blue states coronavirus crisis coronavirus lockdowns COVID-19 COVID-19 advisory board Donald Trump economic crisis Joe Biden mask mandates Mitch McConnell President-elect presidential election Public health

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