Throughout his career, rather than trying to shift public opinion or stand his political ground, Joe Biden has more often pandered to the most extreme right-wing elements of the country, an approach that has been disastrous when it comes to economics, criminal justice, and war, just to name a few. We’re now seeing the beginnings of what it looks like when applied to this pandemic.
Maybe it’s possible that the United States, with what is already arguably the world’s worst pandemic response and only getting worse, will do what no country on Earth has done: halt and reverse a surging coronavirus through targeted, piecemeal measures that avoid a full “lockdown,” and with only a brief period of mandatory mask-wearing. But if so, it would be not just an unprecedented, pathbreaking achievement, it would refute months of scientific advice in both the United States and around the world.
If scientists’ warnings and what we’ve watched happen across the world is anything to go by, there is a better chance this strategy could see the virus continue to spread and kill in high numbers, creating a drawn-out crisis whose human devastation and protracted restrictions leave a worse economic toll than a short, relatively strict national stay-at-home order. As Andrew Goodwin, chief UK economist at forecast firm Oxford Economics, told CNN in October:
The number one priority is getting control of the virus. And the quickest, [most] aggressive, way you can do that is the best thing for the economy. . . . The longer this goes on, the worse it is for the economy and for public finances.
This scenario could mean an eventual U-turn on both of these policies, further eroding the US public’s faith in government, and adding to the whiplash of contradictory official and public health advice they’ve been given since the start of the pandemic. More than this, it could fuel the ongoing politicization of, and public loss of trust in, science.
There could be another way. Both experts and political flacks are talking about the power of Biden’s words and the presidential bully pulpit, and we keep hearing about the impressive electoral mandate he secured. He could use those to build the case for such controversial measures, instead of feeding into right-wing fearmongering.
Instead, the US public could be forced to muddle through who knows how many more months of herky-jerky pandemic conditions, until enough people have been vaccinated to put it to bed for the time being. Those who once assailed Trump’s response may well feel the need to hold their tongues the whole way, out of a misplaced sense of duty. They’ll be doing neither the administration nor the American people any favors.