Fresh off of a reasonably balanced article about Joe Biden’s inflation woes, the New York Times turns to a second issue that’s bedeviling Biden. It serves up this lengthy piece about the administration’s “setbacks” in the fight against the pandemic. The Times is critical of Biden, though it tries to pin a good deal of blame for his failures on Donald Trump.
Here’s how the Times summarizes the situation:
[A]n examination of Biden’s first year of fighting the virus — based on interviews with scores of current and former administration officials, public health experts and governors — shows how his effort to confront “one of the most formidable enemies America has ever faced,” as he recently described it, has been marked by setbacks in three key areas:
— The White House bet the pandemic would follow a straight line, and was unprepared for the sharp turns it took. The administration did not anticipate the nature and severity of variants, even after clear warning signals from the rest of the world. And it continued to focus almost single-mindedly on vaccinations even after it became clear that the shots could not always prevent the spread of disease.
— The administration lacked a sustained focus on testing, not moving to sharply increase the supply of at-home COVID tests until the fall, with delta tearing through the country and omicron on its way. The lack of foresight left Americans struggling to find tests that could quickly determine if they were infected.
— The president tiptoed around an organized Republican revolt over masks, mandates, vaccine passports and even the vaccine itself, as he worried that pushing certain containment measures would only worsen an already intractable cultural and political divide in the country. The nation’s precarious economic health, and the political blowback that Biden and members of his party could face if it worsened, made him all the more cautious. So rather than forcing Americans to get shots, he spent months struggling to accomplish it through persuasion.
As to the last point, the Times never mentions that during the campaign, Team Biden warned America against any vaccine developed under the Trump administration. And it sidesteps the fact that the federal government lacks legal authority to order the vast majority of Americans to get these shots.
Also, is there an “organized Republican revolt over masks, mandates, vaccine passports and the vaccine itself”? Certainly not against the vaccine. Nearly all leading Republicans favor it and Trump himself has urged his supporters and anyone else who will listen to get the shot.
There are grassroots movements against mandatory masking etc., and some Republican attorneys general have taken legal action to oppose anti-covid measures that seem to violate the law. But that’s part of their job.
In any case, to blame Biden’s “tiptoeing” on Republicans and/or to attribute it to a desire not to worsen the political divide makes no sense. Republican opposition and a desire to avoid political division haven’t caused Biden to shy away from taking other highly controversial measures he and his left-wing base favor.
Blaming Trump for Biden’s failures makes no sense, either. The Times suggests that the CDC’s ineffectiveness is due in significant part to its alleged “battering” by the Trump administration. This excuse lacks merit.
That’s clear from the Times’ own account of the CDC’s failures. Here’s the real problem with Biden’s pandemic bureaucracy, in the Times’ own words:
Some of the administration’s most difficult public health decisions are essentially hammered out by a handful of senior health officials who hold roughly the same status, none of whom are in charge. They are overseen by [Jeffrety] Zients, a former economic policy adviser to President Barack Obama who is known for his logistical and planning skills but has no public health expertise. No single public health expert has the role of guiding the response, running interference between various players or standing up to the White House when necessary.
“There is no formal decision-making process,” one senior federal official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Who is in charge of all this?”
The weaknesses in the command structure have played out in disparate ways. In the case of the booster rollout, the White House appeared to overstep its bounds and left itself open to accusations that political considerations were coloring decision-making. More frequently, Walensky has announced changes in public health guidance without anyone fully vetting them with colleagues, leading to backtracking and revisions.
Here are other ways in which dysfunction in Biden’s team has played out:
Walensky’s announcement in May that fully vaccinated people need not wear a mask or physically distance from others, indoors or outdoors, was an example of uncoordinated policymaking.
Biden and Zients had indicated publicly that such a change might be coming. But some White House aides learned of the change only the night before Walensky announced it to the public, and there was no coordinated strategy in place to explain or defend it.
“It wasn’t like, ‘OK, let’s have a Zoom call tonight about the pros and the cons of the mask mandate.’ That didn’t happen,” Fauci said. Asked whether he tried to modify Walensky’s decision beforehand, he said, “You have to know the decision is being made before you modify it.”
The CDC’s announcement last month that it was shortening the recommended isolation period for people with COVID was another bout of confused messaging. At first, the agency announced that people with resolving symptoms could stop isolating after five days without recommending they get a negative test first. But after that omission drew criticism from outside experts, the agency tweaked its guidance to say that if people have access to tests and want to use them, “the best approach is to use an antigen test towards the end of the five-day isolation period.”
In sum, Biden’s inability to maintain public support for his anti-pandemic campaign isn’t due to Trump’s alleged battering of the CDC. Rather, it’s due to his inability to put together a well-functioning team to deal with the pandemic — a team that can hold the public’s trust by putting out clear messages and sticking to them.
This is not a partisan Republican talking point. It’s the New York Times’ take.