Moneybox

Joe Biden Picked a Good Time to Become President

The opportunity for a competent administration to do something historic was helped by timing, weather, and, yes, Trump.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 2: U.S. President Joe Biden departs after speaking about the March jobs report in the State Dining Room of the White House on April 2, 2021 in Washington, DC. According to the U.S. Labor Department, employers added over 900,000 jobs in March, up from 416,000 in February. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden departs after speaking about the March jobs report in the State Dining Room of the White House on April 2, 2021 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden may have lucked into the perfect moment to become president of the United States.

It’s not that he’s been dealt an easy hand, exactly. The coronavirus hasn’t disappeared. Vast numbers of Americans remain unemployed. The conservative movement is busily waging a state-by-state war on voting as it embraces an ever-more-explicitly anti-democratic philosophy. There are plenty of epochal challenges that demand a deft response.

But by now, it’s pretty clear that Biden is going to benefit mightily from tailwinds that were blowing well before he stepped into office, which could in turn help him achieve the sort of historic presidency he is clearly aiming for.

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Take Friday’s big news about the economy: After a winter hibernation, the job market roared to life again in March, as employers hired 916,000 workers, the most since last August. Depending which outlet you read, the numbers crushed, blew past, or just plain old beat analysts’ expectations. The country is still missing some 8.4 million jobs compared to before the crisis, but the recovery seems to be back under way, possibly for good. As Bank of America’s chief economist put it, “The tide is turning.”

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Did Biden’s leadership have anything do with this spring awakening? I mean, it’s possible. Maybe his calming public presence, the promise of major economic stimulus, and a sped-up vaccine rollout (more on that in a minute) gave businesses a renewed sense of confidence. Also, it probably can’t hurt that the lunatic who often encouraged his supporters to flout public-health rules when they weren’t busy bum-rushing the Capitol is now out of office.

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But given that the ink was barely dry on the administration’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill by the time the job numbers were collected, it seems unlikely that the White House really deserves that much credit for this sudden boom. It probably had much more to do with the relief bill Congress passed in December, which gave personal incomes a big boost by sending out $600 checks and renewing federal unemployment benefits, while also providing a new round of aid to small businesses in order to keep staff employed. The government put more money in Americans’ pockets, and they spent it.

The weather was also almost certainly a factor, too: Cold temperatures led to significant job losses in the leisure and hospitality business in the winter—especially at restaurants and bars that had come to rely on outdoor dining and drinking. As temperatures have warmed, so too have those industries. Biden is skilled at many things, but controlling the atmosphere is not one of them.

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Finally, the sharp decline of coronavirus cases after their post-holiday highs likely helped, too. Part of that can be credited to the vaccination effort, and part can be explained by a natural falloff after Americans quit traveling and returned home after spending Christmas breathing on their loved ones.

Now about those vaccines. The Biden administration has, without question, taken a more active, hands-on role in the nation’s COVID response compared to the Trump White House, and the results mostly seem to have been good. We’re currently averaging almost 3 million shots a day, up from an average of almost 900,000 when Biden took office, and the administration now says it expects there to be enough vaccine available for every adult by the end of May.

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By almost all accounts, the current White House’s efforts are partly responsible for putting us on that pace. The president has taken steps aimed at scaling up production, like invoking the Defense Production Act to help Pfizer boost its output, and getting shots into arms more quickly, such as shipping doses directly to pharmacies. Not all of its ideas seem to have panned out as hoped—the FEMA-run mass vaccination sites it set up don’t appear to be that popular—but Biden has clearly taken command of the situation.

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At the same time, Biden has also clearly been harvesting the benefits of seeds planted by the last administration. As the New York Times explained last month, “the new administration expanded and bulked up a vaccine production effort whose key elements were in place when Mr. Biden took over.” The Washington Post’s reporters explained much the same in a piece titled “ ‘Finishing the deal’: Biden vaccine victories build on Trump team’s work.”

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As part of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump White House locked down supplies of enough vaccine to cover at least 200 million adults, in part thanks to its smart strategy of signing contracts with multiple drug makers while clinical trials were ongoing, and after a wobbly start, had begun to accelerate distribution. The day after Biden took the oath of office, health care workers administered more than 1 million vaccinations—suggesting the country was already on pace to reach the new administration’s original goal of 100 million shots in 100 days.

As for ramping up production? Biden has taken steps that helped: He struck a deal with Johnson & Johnson to have the company’s factory run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for instance. But the Times suggests the biggest factor is just that Moderna and Pfizer have had time to get better and faster at cranking out vials of their new product.

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The Biden administration has painted this situation very differently, suggesting that their predecessors left no vaccine distribution plan in place and forced them to start “from scratch.” There is a small grain of truth to that claim—the Trump team’s approach was to essentially ship vaccines to states and let local officials figure out the rest with little guidance. But the idea that Biden and his team were building from nothing is ultimately an exaggeration. They have improved on a vaccine effort that already seemed to be gaining some steam.

To be extra clear, I do not want to imply that Biden is just taking credit for Trump’s successes. There is absolutely no guarantee the vaccine rollout would be going this well were the carnival barker still in office. Nor am I trying to imply that the economy would be doing fine without the $1.9 trillion Congress just injected into it; the bill passed in December was only really meant to be a bridge until the spring—its unemployment benefits were set to expire in March—and it is entirely possible that, in an alternate universe where Republicans still controlled much of Washington, household spending would be about to dip again as the jobless cut back on expenses. Also, politically, Republicans can’t really complain if Biden claims a little more credit than he’s due: After all, Trump spent years claiming to have made the economy great again, even though he in large part coasted off of the slow-but-steady jobs recovery that started under Barack Obama. (Trump deserved credit for installing an inflation dove as Fed Chair and pumping short-term stimulus into the economy with tax cuts and deficit spending, but that’s it.)

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With all those caveats and qualifications aside, though, the fact of the matter is that both the economy and our national response to the plague seemed to be turning a corner right around when Biden arrived. It’s a vastly better situation than what, say, the Obama administration faced at the beginning of 2009, when each month was still bringing a catastrophic-seeming wave of job losses. At the same time, we’re still mired in enough of an ongoing crisis to create the opportunity for historic, permanent change. Biden has already passed a massive relief bill that may have laid the groundwork for a long-term revolution in the way we fight child poverty. And this week, he introduced a $2 trillion economic modernization plan that would rebuild and decarbonize much of the country’s infrastructure. If it weren’t for the sense of urgency created by COVID, and the way it has changed America’s perception of government spending, it seems unlikely Democratic moderates in Congress would be entertaining anything remotely that ambitious. For any politician interested in being remembered by future generations, this was a pretty good moment to take the reins.

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