Is Biden Flunking COVID?

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S1: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

S2: When President Biden stepped in front of the microphone this week for a press conference marking his first year in office, he seemed committed to accentuating the positive.

S1: I don’t think it should be.

S2: He started it off with a long list of his achievements. Everything from the unemployment rate to the vaccination rate got thrown in there,

S1: and for the first time in a long time, this country’s working people actually got a raise. Actually got it raised. People at the bottom 40 percent saw their income go up,

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S2: but then he pivoted sharply.

S1: Still, for all this progress, I know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country. We know why Covid 19 Abercrombie’s has now been challenging us in a way that it’s the new enemy.

S2: The question Biden spent the next few minutes wrestling with was who bears responsibility for the burden of this pandemic? His administration? The virus itself. He seemed to be telegraphing a message. I might add on some things wrong, but at least I tried. It was impossible to miss a kind of defensiveness on the president’s part.

S1: Look, we’re also increasing testing. Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. Oh, we’re doing more now. We’ve gone from zero at home tests a year ago to 375 million tests on the market in just this month.

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S2: The Washington Post’s Dan Diamond has been trying to give the administration some kind of grade on their year of Covid response and remarks like that one. They get his attention.

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S3: The new testing website, the shipping out of masks, it sort of reminds me like in class, your grade is due next week, so you just dump all the stuff off with the professor right beforehand. I mean, it may be the right and maybe the right stuff, but you still get knocked for not having done it earlier in the semester.

S2: At one point in this presser, Biden said the U.S. was clearly in a better place when it comes to the coronavirus than it was a year ago. But are we right now? The U.S. is averaging 800000 new Covid cases a day, three times as many as last January. Hospitalizations are higher than they’ve ever been. Dan looks at numbers like that, and he can’t help but think about the president’s campaign promises that unlike Trump, Biden had a Covid plan, one that could prevent virus numbers from creeping back up.

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S3: I mean, he staked a lot on this idea that the government could have and should have taken steps to stop the pandemic in its tracks. I think now that he’s president, he’s increasingly been confronted with the reality that the White House can only do so much. The question of memory is can the White House take steps to ameliorate the virus to mitigate it? What can they realistically do versus what didn’t they do? But but could have

S2: today on the show a Covid 19 report card for President Biden if he had a plan. But did it work? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. A year ago, President Biden was giving a different press conference, his first as a newly inaugurated commander in chief. The topic was Covid and the message was sobering.

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S1: Let me be very clear things are going to continue to get worse before they get better. The memorial we we held two nights ago will not be our last one. Unfortunately, the death toll will likely top 500000 next month.

S2: But then the president unveiled an almost 200 page plan to take on the virus by Dan Diamond’s count. This plan included 180 different promises about steps the Biden administration would take to end the pandemic. That document it would become the White House Covid task force’s north.

S1: Help is on the way today. Today, I’m unveiling a national strategy on Covid 19 and executive actions to beat this pandemic. Our national strategy is comprehensive. It’s based on science, not politics. It’s based on truth, not denial and as detail.

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S2: Do you remember the sense of relief so many people had when Biden entered office and had a plan for dealing with Covid 19? Like, I still remember it how some people were like, Oh, finally,

S3: I remember it vividly and I have been looking back at some of the coverage because we’re coming up on that one year. The New York Times, my my esteemed colleagues there had a headline something to the effect of Biden releases the plan that Trump never did, which I thought was, you know, a little bit embroidered. But but the idea was was fair that President Biden was leaning into the pandemic, saying he would confront it and then his administration did they? They did a lot of things very early that hewed to their promises. So across the spring and into the summer, when it looked like the virus really was on the retreat when people were getting back to their lives, when the White House had a celebration on July 4th, there was a lot of reason for optimism. I think we forget that now in this bleak winter, but there were moments where it felt like the United States was just two good weeks away from being pretty much back to normal. And it just has been a little soured, I think, back on some of those moments. And the White House, when asked or pressed about more things they could be doing, they seemed awfully confident Mary in a way that even at the time, made me a little nervous.

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S2: You said that if you take a careful look at this plan. You can see places where maybe the administration has met a goal, but just barely and needed to have pushed harder. I know you spoke to a bunch of experts about the plan. What did they say when you asked, is the administration’s plan working or has the administration even followed the plan?

S3: Yeah, I thought of the story a bit as a report card when I was first talking to experts. I specifically would go through the plan with them and say, is, is this something you would give them a pass? Would you would you fail the White House here? Or would you say it’s partially achieved on ideas like masking, like testing? And the White House promised at one point in this plan that they were going to do quote predictable and robust federal purchasing of tests. Essentially, the government was just going to buy up as many tests as they could in a predictable way. So if you were a test manufacturer, you knew that you had guaranteed customers.

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S2: You’re basically creating a marketplace.

S3: Exactly. That didn’t happen. There was a great story in the New York Times last year, a disturbing story about how one test manufacturer laid off staff may have destroyed some components for testing, though, though they somewhat deny that. And this looks you look bad at the time. It looks even worse knowing that people couldn’t get tests late last year. The federal government did not do this predictable testing that they promised, and that’s according to industry people I talked to. So I think that’s one example. A more complicated example is on the global side where the administration did come through, and you can go down the list and check, check, check. They rejoined the World Health Organization. They joined this vaccine sharing alliance. They’ve tried to restore some global luster and leadership after President Trump retreated from the world stage. I mean, you could say they did all the things, but at the same time, the global crisis is still pretty bad. So the question of did they do what was needed to make enough progress on the global front? I think the answer and I got this from federal officials is no like there’s a lot that is still needed in 2022 and beyond to make sure that variants don’t pop up overseas and come back, let alone all the people who are suffering from Covid infections and collateral damage that could really use the help of the richest and most powerful nation in history.

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S2: So the experts you spoke to, it seems like they really wanted to highlight the ways testing maybe fell short and the ways that the global community maybe wasn’t getting what it needed from the administration. And there was one more area that your experts highlighted. They talked about health care workers. And of course, now we’re seeing hospitals overwhelmed with Macron. So what was in this plan to address health care workers that maybe could have prevented what we’re seeing now?

S3: Yeah, it’s a knotty question, so the White House did say a year ago as they took the measure of where the United States was in January 2021, they said hospitals are full. We have to come up with a plan to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, hospitals are again full workers are that much more burned out. But the plan was to surge support to hospitals that would need it. So. So crisis teams, which we have seen the White House do. Another plan was just to recruit more workers into the field. So shortages could be averted. Some of that work has begun, but that’s that’s a long process. You can’t make a nurse overnight, you know, maybe we’ll be ready in three years with more health workers, but we kind of need them now. So the issue is kind of this middle point. Could there have been more to keep people in the field? And I talked to one expert, David Grabowski, this great expert on long term care at Harvard University, who’s been banging the drum for two years, that some of the workers in nursing homes could have used a $5 an hour pay hike that the federal government financed. If you’re trying to keep people in some of the most sensitive work settings, and then there’s the second piece, even beyond the shortage issue of the safety concern, there are workers who have been exposed to Covid, whether at hospitals, nursing homes, packing plants, wherever they have argued for two years that there need to be more workplace safety standards that that hold employers accountable. The Biden administration came in promising to explore this idea, even push it, but has not made significant progress. And I’ve talked to frontline workers who are really dispirited about that people who supported President Biden as a candidate but say he’s not following through as president.

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S2: So I imagine when you brought these criticisms to the Biden administration, people maybe didn’t really think that this was their fault. Like, I was struck by a quote from Andy Slavitt, who used to work in the administration early on and in his take on all this was the plan was good, but it was overcome by events. And I wondered what you made of that?

S3: You know, Andy was pretty honest. I think he celebrated where he thought the plan did well. The Biden administration and folks like Andy, who worked there can point rightly to the vaccination campaign. And even though the U.S. vaccination rate lags other countries, it’s not for lack of trying by the Biden administration. I think where Andy and others acknowledge some challenge was the evolution of the virus that Delta became more transmissible, that al-Muqrin not only more transmissible but dodging all the vaccines that the Biden administration had worked to put in arms.

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S2: So didn’t we know the virus was going to evolve?

S3: I mean, I’m not endorsing the defense, but I I think the Biden administration is pointing to that as an argument for why they were celebrating in the summer that the virus was increasingly in the rearview mirror when it turned out not to be. There are plenty of people who said we need to be ready for the next variant. There are people like Mike Osterholm, who advised the Biden transition team on Covid, who’s who’s a long time colleague of Andy Slavitt. They both worked in Minnesota, and Michael Osterholm has made the point that we should have been doing these things that we’re doing now in January, six months ago, a year ago, in case a variant had shown up and really upended all of the hard work that the administration was leading.

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S2: It was interesting to me, too, that a lot of officials you spoke with seemed to point to misinformation as a big hurdle for them. And it didn’t really follow for me because that that element was certainly in play. Misinformation exists now, but there are also things they just didn’t do until literally this week, like allowing Americans to be able to order free Covid tests, you know, to their homes.

S3: So when it comes to misinformation, Gayle Smith, who led the State Department’s Covid response globally, said to her misinformation was like, quote a second virus that they were trying to contain. When you looked at all of the people who were passing on vaccines or not taking the precautions that they should. The Biden administration could take steps to try and protect people. But if folks are refusing to listen, then that’s that’s a challenge that’s pervasive and a real problem at the same time. Mary. I think one reason the White House went to this this idea of misinformation or Republican resistance is frankly, it’s a political argument, and it’s a little bit of like a get out of jail card, right? Like the White House can say, Well, we did all these things, but misinformation, Republican resistance, we couldn’t have predicted that we couldn’t account for that. And and I’m not sure that’s true. I mean, it seemed pretty clear from day one that the White House was going to go its way on vaccinations and public health messaging, and Republicans were going to fight the president. And and I do think the White House is limited in some ways when it’s trying to take on the hydra of misinformation, of Covid myths of political attacks. Things that were under the White House’s control that they did not do. And that’s where I tried to focus my story. What could they have done? What was under their power? What did they do or not do?

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S2: When we come back, how will Democratic politicians start talking about living with Covid rather than eliminating it? And for Biden, does changing his rhetoric mean changing his plan? As people were lining up to get Covid tests in December and January, and as infection rates have soared, I think there’s been this palpable feeling of something needs to change in terms of the administration’s response. And you can see that in the fact that, you know, all of a sudden the administration is standing up Covid tests for every American. I wonder if you think changing the administration’s response means changing this plan you’ve been evaluating or whether it’s about like pressing on different levers with different degrees of pressure.

S3: I have wondered that and I’ve put that directly to the White House when I was interviewing Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator and his top deputy, Danielle Julian. The the idea of new strategies came up, and I jumped on that and said, You know, does this mean you’re going to have a new strategy for a year or two? And immediately they said, No, you know, we’re sticking to what worked in year one. We think this is the right plan. We’re just going to keep doing more of it. I don’t know if that’s the right answer or not. There are lots of things in that plan that did appear to work. Again, the vaccination piece generally worked. We haven’t really talked about health equity, but the administration can point to for a number of statistics where it looks like they closed some of the racial and ethnic gaps and Covid bad outcomes. So there are ideas that are proven and accepted by public health experts across the aisle. It does come down to this question of execution and political will. For whatever reason, the White House did back off on some of these things in the middle late last year. I think they really did think they had gotten to a point where the vaccination campaign was going to carry us through.

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S2: It’s interesting, you say the White House was saying, we’re going to stick with the plan because I’ve heard that message elsewhere, like Kamala Harris gave an interview and was confronted with, you know, do we need to change course when it comes to the coronavirus? And her answer was so strange, but definitely along the lines of what you’re alluding to, it was a little bit of word salad. I don’t like she, she says.

S4: It is time for us to do what we have been doing in that time as every day, every day, it is time for us to agree that there are things and tools that are available to us to slow this thing down.

S2: And it just it. It felt like resistance to acknowledging that the field of battle has changed.

S3: I think because this is a political administration that is like any White House concerned about their political viability, concerned about approval ratings, it is very, very hard to run away from a plan. Even if it is seen to not be working. It is an admission of failure that will then be thrown back in their face

S2: even if the plan stays. There are former administration officials who are arguing that the administration should take a different rhetorical approach, should be talking about living with the virus, about the fact that the virus isn’t going away. You can hear this shift in the way Anthony Fauci is talking, where he’s talking about, you know, everyone’s going to be exposed to Macron. What do you make of that? And and do you think that rhetorical change might be a kind of middle ground for the administration where they’re not changing their plan, they’re just changing the way they talk about it?

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S3: I find it really interesting from both a current perspective, but also historical. The Trump administration, some Republicans, a year and a half ago a year ago, were arguing that this is the move that we needed to make, that we needed to accept that Covid was with us and they were using it to defend the Trump administration’s often underwhelming response. I don’t think that’s right, because at the time we didn’t have vaccines, we didn’t have antivirals. Things that can defang the virus better protect us. It means something different in 2022 to try and live with the virus than it did in 2020. But I also worry a bit Mary that it’s a little too early and you need to make sure that you’re not messaging to people that it’s it’s totally normal again and fine to get rid of whatever protections and just go back to having dinner parties and small rooms and being around big, big crowds, especially if you might be feeling a little under the weather. It’s. A balancing act of trying to get exhausted Americans on board with the idea that even if the end of Covid isn’t going to happen, a manageable world with Covid is is achievable, but also not getting people believing that it’s just time to give up because it isn’t. And there are still 2000 odd people dying with Covid every day in hospitals. That’s that is a huge number, and we are not at a place to just say that we should accept that.

S2: You’re putting your finger on a couple of things here.

S3: It’s a fat finger, I guess

S2: first of all, the fact that living with the virus has become a Republican talking point. So that makes it difficult politically for Democrats to embrace it. But also the fact that hospitals are overwhelmed right now. And so saying everyone’s going to get the virus, the timing is off. You can’t overwhelm the hospitals more. That’ll create real problems for the country. And this is where I think about something that my colleague Will Saletan wrote a while back when he talked about messaging around the vaccine. And what he was arguing was that the message we need to give people is. How do you want to get Covid? Do you want to get Covid in this shot that has been FDA approved? That is safe, that will protect you? Or do you want to encounter Covid without that kind of protection in a way that may cause you to get long COVID caused you to die, cause all sorts of side effects you don’t want. And that’s the choice you need to be making. And I thought that was so smart because it pushes through all of these knotty issues of how do we talk about living with Covid? It gets through the politics. And I kind of wonder what you think about that messaging and whether you think the politicians are pushing through in that kind of way to actually communicate where we are to the American public.

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S3: That is exactly the way that I have been approaching it in my personal life, that I have shifted to a mentality, especially with Macron. I’m going to get this eventually, but I want to get it on my terms as much as possible, which is I’m maximally vexed and boosted, hopefully with whatever the latest targeted booster would be. I want to wait until there are the best treatments available. And I think that’s kind of the way that health officials and the government feel, too. They they know that it’s inevitable that Covid will be circulating. It’ll probably infect them at some point. So the longer you push it out or the battleground that you pick so much, the better. I think that is what health experts have cottoned on to. I think that’s very tricky for the Biden administration to explain, and this may be getting into the weeds. But I’m just curious who who do you think can explain that to the average American? Is that a Joe Biden message? Is that a Kamala Harris message? Is that a 2014 message? Because those are three of the most prominent communicators, and all of them have complications at this point in how they are either perceived as messengers? The case of Tony Fauci, or if they’re even able to be an effective messenger like Vice President Harris,

S2: that’s such a good point that it’s not just the message that may not be working, it’s the messengers. There’s one more thing I think about a lot, which is even beyond the politics, I do think. Americans are kind of stuck in viewing Covid progress as a binary, like you’re either winning the war or you’re surrendering when the truth is really somewhere in between. And I wonder if the scientists you spoke to expressed any frustration about that.

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S3: There was a lot of frustration in early 2020 when Trump officials would get up and give remarks. Health Secretary Alex Azar would say things like the virus is, you know, it’s under control or, you know, the risk is very, very low. And I had health experts, pretty senior people who would call me and freak out that the Trump administration was making it seem too manageable, too controlled and wasn’t preparing the American public. The Biden administration came in and and spoke in really stark concerning terms and rightly about the dark days of the pandemic, about how severe the challenges were. I think they tried to put a little fear into Americans about the need to get vaccinated and have continued to do that with some of their rhetoric around the pandemic of the unvaccinated. To the people who don’t have protection, who are disproportionately getting sick and dying. Some of their rhetoric has really bothered public health experts who say that trying to. Inspire by fear or separate the country into buckets that that’s only going to backfire. So when I hear about the messages coming from the government, it’s a little less about, you know, the either or of we’re winning or losing. And it’s more about are we really conveying that we’re all in this together, that every person’s individual risk matters to the whole system, to the people around them? That’s that’s where the experts have really gotten hung up.

S2: Diane Dimond, I’m so grateful for your nuance on this story.

S3: Mary Harris, thanks so much for having me back. I always despair of it because it means that something is probably going wrong with Covid when I got the call from what next?

S2: Diane Dimond is a reporter at The Washington Post. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson, Elaina Schwartz and Daniel Hewitt. We’re led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk and make sure you stay tuned to this feed tomorrow. Lizzie O’Leary will be here with what next? TBD our Friday show. You will not want to miss it. All right, I’ll get you back here next week.