Biden seeks to use the bully pulpit he has on COVID-19

President-elect Joe BidenJoe Biden 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Philadelphia shooting leaves 2 dead, injures toddler Ron Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin MORE is wasting no time in using his bully pulpit to push public health measures, like mask wearing and physical distancing, that public health experts say will work best to combat the rapid spread of COVID-19. 

Biden has promised a much more forceful federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic than President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE and has announced his own COVID-19 advisory board of health experts. 

During a speech Monday, Biden implored Americans to put aside politics and wear masks, saying it was a necessary step to take for “the soul of this country.”


“It's time to end the politicization of basic, responsible public health steps like mask wearing and social distancing,” Biden said. “A mask is not a political statement, but it is a good way to start pulling the country together.”

As president, Biden said he will rapidly scale up the nation's testing capacity, invest in contact tracing and use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of protective equipment for front-line workers.

Biden has also promised to direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide specific guidance for communities on how they should navigate COVID-19 restrictions, relative to the level of risk and degree of viral spread in a community.

As president-elect, Biden's power is limited, but it is also not insignificant.

“What he doesn't have yet in executive power, he does have a moral authority as the incoming president,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as Baltimore's health commissioner.  

In his speeches since being projected as the winner of the presidential election, Biden has called for unity but has also offered a realistic view of the future of the pandemic.


“We are still facing a dark winter,” Biden said Monday, adding that “there's a need for bold action to fight this pandemic.”

For his rhetoric to change behavior, Biden will need to win over GOP governors who support Trump and a divided public that is weary of COVID-19 restrictions.

“We need to tell a story, we need to help people understand what’s going on,” said Michael Osterholm, a member of Biden’s COVID-19 task force and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“Even before the inauguration, if in fact we can just start getting a more coherent message out to the 50 states and territories and the district, that by itself would be helpful,” Osterholm said.

Top health officials, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, have said wearing masks, avoiding crowds and keeping physically distant are the best ways to slow the spread of the virus.

Yet for the past eight months, Trump has dismissed expert opinions.

He has downplayed the need for the public to wear masks and falsely claimed that public health experts disagree about their effectiveness. He has even mocked Biden for wearing a mask on multiple occasions.

Trump has largely left governors to handle the response on their own but has also been pushing for states to reopen their economies as much as possible, leading to a piecemeal map of restrictions and tensions between mayors, county officials and governors.

Even as COVID-19 cases have spiked throughout the country, many Republican governors have championed personal responsibility, putting the onus on the public to take steps to curb the transmission of the coronavirus, rather than require masks and potentially restrict businesses.

Health experts have said the defiance by some to wearing masks is a key reason the U.S. infection rate exceeds that of almost every other nation.

There are now more than 10 million COVID-19 infections in the U.S., which is averaging almost 1,000 deaths a day.

Many governors believe that the public is tired of invasive restrictions and have adopted a kind of fatalistic approach to letting the virus run rampant through their communities.


Wen said that by laying out his expectations ahead of time, Biden might be able to convince the public to buy into his plan.

“Even if he cannot implement the policies that are part of the national framework, he can let them know that this is coming, and they can start doing their part,” Wen said. 

Biden wants to make masks mandatory, but even as president he won’t have the constitutional authority. Some experts have suggested he could tie federal funding to state mask laws and said he could pressure local mayors to enact mandates on their own if governors are uncooperative.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusWorking for lasting change Former HHS secretary Sebelius joins marijuana industry group More than 200 Obama officials sign letter supporting Biden's stimulus plan MORE said Biden needs to keep hammering home his intention to listen to scientists.

“The communication and bully pulpit starts right now, with having as much as possible, scientists out from reinforcing the notion that mask wearing does make a difference ... and just reinforcing that message over and over again. That's all the president elect can do right now,” Sebelius said.

She suggested Biden reach out to governors on a bipartisan basis, to let them know his administration will offer much more help and support than they currently receive.

“I think they need to know that this is a whole new effort by the incoming president, and it will be an entirely new relationship. They will be able to count on the federal government,” Sebelius said.

Reid Wilson contributed.