For Joe Biden, life is looking pretty sweet right now. After stumbling badly in the first three Democratic-primary contests, he mounted arguably the fastest and most surprising comeback in U.S. political history. He’s ahead in both national and swing-state polling against Trump. Most of the media are offering hosannas for his selection of Kamala Harris.
Next week, Joe Biden will formally accept the Democratic nomination, up against a president who has a self-destructive streak wider and deeper than the Mississippi River.
For Biden, these days may be as good as it gets. As November approaches, he will have a tougher time campaigning almost entirely via Zoom calls from Delaware. His fellow Democrats are not hiding their concerns that three 90-minute debates offer ample opportunities for stumbling blocks. Traditionally, presidential campaigns tighten near the end. Nate Silver ominously declares that Biden’s chances of winning are about the same as Hillary Clinton’s chances at this time four years ago.
If Biden wins in November — and with so many Americans voting by mail, it may take a while to determine who wins which states — he may quickly conclude that beating Donald Trump was the comparatively easy part of the job. The incumbent is almost certainly going to be minimally cooperative during the transition. The downside of trying to make the presidential election a referendum on the incumbent is that the electorate offers a mandate that amounts mostly to “don’t be Donald Trump,” not necessarily to a particular course of action or policy.
And if Biden takes the oath on January 20, 2021, he’ll be taking over a country with a high stack of problems — starting with an ongoing pandemic that has killed almost 170,000 Americans and might kill 200,000 to 300,000 by the end of this year.
Biden’s plan on the coronavirus includes a lot of vague goals — “restoring trust, credibility, and common purpose,” “bring our country together,” — and much of what the federal government is doing — keep Fauci in place, increase the number of tests being conducted, “accelerate the development of vaccines.”
Basically, the Biden White House would be the status quo, with less leaking of opposition research against Fauci and fewer presidential predictions that the virus will “disappear” or “go away.” No doubt many Americans would prefer those changes, but they alone won’t change the facts on the ground. Biden would change what is said at the White House about the pandemic; he would not change much about what the White House is doing about the pandemic.
Biden can take some solace that most public-health experts tracking the development of the coronavirus vaccine think one will be ready by the end of this year, or the beginning of next year — a timeline that aligns well with a potential Biden inauguration. But discovering a vaccine is a different task from mass-producing it and distributing it. The vaccine is likely to require two separate shots, a month apart.
And that vaccine is likely to be good, but far from universally effective, as Dr. Anthony Fauci recently warned:
Scientists are hoping for a coronavirus vaccine that is at least 75 percent effective, but 50 percent or 60 percent effective would be acceptable, too, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a Q&A with the Brown University School of Public Health. “The chances of it being 98 percent effective is not great, which means you must never abandon the public health approach.”
“You’ve got to think of the vaccine as a tool to be able to get the pandemic to no longer be a pandemic, but to be something that’s well controlled,” he said.
Then there is the question of how many Americans would take the vaccine. When Gallup asked, “If an FDA-approved vaccine to prevent coronavirus/COVID-19 was available right now at no cost, would you agree to be vaccinated?,” 65 percent said yes and 35 percent said no. More than half of self-identified Republicans said no, but 41 percent of non-white Americans were also reluctant. No one is sure how long the vaccine’s effect would last; getting a coronavirus shot might turn into an annual ritual, much like a flu shot for many Americans.
The early months of a Biden presidency might involve a lot of imploring the public to get a vaccine that is of limited effectiveness.
The economic consequences of the pandemic are likely to last well into 2021, at the minimum.
Google isn’t bringing workers back into its offices until at least the summer of next year. The exodus from America’s biggest cities is likely to continue. Industries such as airlines, tourism and travel, movie theaters, conventions, concerts, and any business requiring a crowd may take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels. At this point, the Biden team still believes they will be enacting sweeping new tax hikes on the rich . . . during what will still feel like a recession and high unemployment.
Bill Gates believes that based upon the vaccine research so far, “For the rich world, we should largely be able to end this thing by the end of 2021, and for the world at large by the end of 2022.” The overlap between the tail end of the pandemic and the early part of a Biden presidency would be a stark reminder that not every aspect of the outbreak that pains Americans was the fault of Donald Trump.
The lingering pandemic means that the beginning of a Biden presidency would look dramatically different from what we’re used to. Will he have a public inauguration ceremony? Will he wear a mask while taking the oath of office? Would he appear with his cabinet in person? Would he give the traditional joint address to Congress on Capitol Hill, or from a remote location? Are international summits and in-person meetings with foreign heads of state off the agenda for the foreseeable future?
How much of a bully pulpit does a president have when he has to interact with everyone through Zoom calls?
Very little will come easily to a Biden administration in early 2021, and perhaps for much of the year. Maybe the public will appreciate his softer and calmer tone, the fact that he doesn’t bring the constant drama of the Trump circus, and his sometimes-goofy amiability. But this will be the first time Biden has sat in the big chair, and it’s fair to wonder just how commanding a presence he will be — particularly at age 78, with signs that his staff wants to minimize how much time he spends in front of the cameras.
With this in mind, Biden should savor this moment. Nothing gets any easier from here on out.