Biden Plays Expectations Game on COVID Vaccine

A return to the standard forms of political spin.

We are far from the destination, but the return to normalcy has begun—and so have the normal games presidents play.

Donald Trump said many times that COVID-19 would just “disappear,” as if it were so much fake news ginned up to help Democrats. At one campaign stop, he railed, “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. ... On Nov. 4, you won’t hear about it anymore.”

Of course, he was wrong about the disease simply vanishing. More than 420,000 Americans have died of COVID-19—surpassing the number of U.S. soldiers who died in combat in both world wars and the Vietnam War combined. (That stark figure is 392,393, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.) And just because the spin from the newly installed Joe Biden White House isn’t as remotely egregious or reality-defying as what many of us became accustomed to over the last four years, “better than Trump” isn’t a standard worth bragging about.

Every new administration likes to reset political expectations. Staff members arrive at their new offices, look at the books and declare, “Dear Lord! It’s so much worse than we ever imagined.” Normally, the calamity being discovered is economic. This time it’s the pandemic.

“Biden inheriting nonexistent coronavirus vaccine distribution plan and must start ‘from scratch,’ sources say,” read the headline on a CNN article typical of the coverage. “There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch,” one unnamed source was quoted as saying.

Separately, Jeff Zients, the newly installed White House coronavirus czar, told reporters, “What we’re inheriting from the Trump administration is so much worse than we could have imagined.”

To his credit, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, pushed back, albeit with mild understatement: “We’re certainly not starting from scratch, because there is activity going on in the distribution,” he said last week.

On Trump’s final day in office, close to 1.5 million people were vaccinated. That was a high point. During Trump’s final week in office, the seven-day average was 912,000 per day.

In other words, Biden set the original bar way too low. To reach the million-per-day target, we’d need only 78,000 additional vaccinations per day above the pre-Biden rate. Vaccinate two extra people per day in every ZIP code in America, and you’ve done it.

Thus, it was good news Monday that Biden relented and raised the target to 1.5 million vaccinations per day. But he's still playing catch-up with facts on the ground in order to keep expectations in check. We're now at 1.25 million vaccinations per day. Perhaps Biden is scarred from the overpromising of the stimulus and shovel-ready jobs that ended up stinging the Obama administration. Indeed, it might be better for him politically to set expectations low so that the administration can wildly exceed them—and I hope he does—but how does that benefit the country? 

Biden says he wants the federal government to respond to this crisis as if it were a war. Well, what kind of war? The modern kind, where a handful of people do almost everything while the rest of society and government are spectators? We haven’t fully mobilized the country for war since WWII, and if that’s the model, the Biden administration is falling far short of the mark.

FDR put Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, the man who built the Pentagon in 16 months, in charge of the Manhattan Project. Historian Paul Johnson tells the story of Groves calling the Treasury Department and demanding thousands of tons of silver for electrical wiring. The response from a vexed official: “In the Treasury we do not speak of tons of silver. Our unit is the troy ounce.” Groves got his silver because fastidious bureaucratic pettifogging was no match for a nation mobilized.

That’s the spirit people want from government right now, at all levels. But last week, Biden said the federal government’s implementation of a vaccination program was “too rigid.” Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, was asked Sunday on Meet the Press about the possibility—floated by Democratic Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Andrew Cuomo of New York—of allowing states to cut out the middleman and purchase vaccines directly. “I don’t think that’s possible,” Klain replied, because the emergency-use authorization of the existing vaccines requires federal oversight. That sounds awfully rigid to me. 

Similarly, the United Kingdom has already approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for emergency use, and the European Union could approve it this week. Under normal circumstances, I’d say the U.S. should wait for our Food and Drug Administration to finish scrutinizing the AstraZeneca vaccine before adding it to our COVID-19 arsenal. But these aren’t normal times.

And we will never have a true return to normalcy until the pandemic is behind us.