This may be the last thing I ever expected to write 50 days into the new administration, but progressive Twitter, not to mention much of the media, is swooning — that’s the word I keep seeing — over Joe Biden.
I understand it. He got a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill through Congress in the blink of an eye, without once caving to Mitch McConnell and the Republicans. He didn’t fight with the Senate parliamentarian over the minimum wage. He’d fight that battle later. He gave in a little, but not much, to get Joe Manchin’s vote in a 50-50 Senate in which Biden needed every Democrat, including the centrist from West Virginia. Democrats needed only 50 votes for this bill because they used an arcane Senate rule called reconciliation, which avoids the 60-vote needed to overcome a filibuster, and, more important to our story, he used it without apology.
It was a win-win, even if you’re not grading on a curve. But mostly, it’s a sign of Biden momentum.
Just after signing the bill, Biden gave his first prime-time speech as president, a speech that was praised for, among other things, not being memorable. Seriously. There were no great lines. There was no flashy rhetoric. But the tone was the thing — a tone unlike anything we’ve heard except from nearly every other president besides the previous one. There was no victory lap. There was certainly no name-calling, although Biden did, repeatedly, promise to tell the truth, which was a clear shot taken.
Let’s be honest. Biden has an easy act to follow. Republicans who tried to blame Biden for failing to keep his promise of bipartisanship on this bill — which didn’t get a single Republican vote in the House or the Senate — didn’t get an argument from Biden. He didn’t mention Republicans, or Democrats for that matter, at all. He didn’t give a bipartisan speech. He gave a nonpartisan speech about a virus that belongs to neither party.
All Biden had to do, after getting a bill passed into law that has something like 60 to 70% approval across the nation, was to say that however promising the new law, it wasn’t enough: “I will not relent until we beat this virus. But I need you, the American people. I need you. I need every American to do their part.”
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It was a call for unity in crisis that should have been, from the very beginning, well, unifying, but never has been.
And so, at least for the moment, the new conventional wisdom is that Biden has been misunderestimated, that he’s not simply this empathetic Uncle Joe who shares the nation’s grief a year into the pandemic, but that he’s the right person at the right time to lead the country forward. I wonder how that holds up once Republicans start filibustering nearly every major piece of the Biden platform.
For me, I’ll wait a bit before coming to that judgment. Let’s say at least until the Fourth of July. That’s the day Biden promised that if Americans stay on the same team and on the right path, we’ll be able to have backyard Independence Day cookouts with family and friends and watch nonpartisan fireworks.
Picking out a holiday was no accident. You’ll remember way back when the former president promised to have churches full by Easter. It was a nonsensical boast based on nothing but the notion that you could wish away a pandemic. How many hundreds of thousands have died since last Easter? How many millions of tears have followed?
What Biden has been doing is under promising, allowing him to over deliver. That’s not exactly a new strategy, but it’s one that hasn’t been used in a few years. And so when Biden says we’ll have sufficient vaccines for every American by the end of May, it’s probable that we will. When he says the economy, with the $1.9 trillion boost, is ready to come back, he’s only saying what most economists predict.
When he says every American will be eligible to get the vaccine as of May 1, he’s putting an end to the often-confusing, and often-conflicting, messages we hear in the prioritizing of the vaccines. There will be no more back of the line, which isn’t to say that the lines won’t still be long. Some states, and almost certainly Colorado, will get there before May. In fact, Jared Polis now says he’s looking at April 15th.
But that’s when the under promising stops. Let’s go back to that Fourth of July date. The speed by which the vaccines were produced, an effort which, of course, predates Biden, has been nothing short of a miracle. Getting the vaccines into arms — the success, or lack of it, will be on Biden — won’t take a miracle, but it will take a massive organizational achievement. I mean, Biden is promising a website to help, and we all know how that worked out last time.
I don’t know how many people Biden will have persuaded to keep wearing masks, though, or to keep socially distancing or even to keep washing their hands. We look at the Colorado legislature where many Republicans refuse to wear masks simply because it has become a Republican thing to not wear masks. And in much of the country, we’re seeing governors giving up prematurely on the advice they continue to receive from medical science. That’s despite the reasonable possibility we could be close to the home stretch, unless, of course, the variants kick in and then all bets are off.
Texas gets most of the publicity here, much of it bad publicity. Gov. Greg Abbott says the state is now 100% open despite the fact that Texas’ COVID numbers trail much of the nation. When the mayor of liberal Austin says it will keep its mask ordinance in place, the state attorney general promises to sue. In Maryland, where the Rebublican governor has loosened regulations, the Baltimore mayor has said the city will keep its own. We don’t know whether lawsuits will follow. But we can spot a trend.
We also don’t know how many people Biden will have persuaded to get vaccinated. Every living former president — save one —has joined in on the campaign to get people to take the vaccine. You can guess which one. The hope is that the more people who get vaccinated without serious side effects, the more people will be willing to get vaccinated themselves. In any case, we’re a long way from herd immunity.
But the country needs a goal, a realistic goal, in order to keep the faith. Biden did a smart thing during his speech in speaking of the massive relief bill, “If it fails at any point, I will acknowledge that it failed.”
But, Biden said, it won’t fail. It’s one of the known unknowns. The surest bet is that much will happen between now and July Fourth, and not all of it good, and that there are many tests — and not only COVID tests — yet to come.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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