On the menu today: a long look at the myriad challenges facing the person to take the oath of office to be president on January 20, 2021.
Being President Is Going to Stink for Years to Come
Imagine that through some entirely unforeseeable sequence of events, the person who takes the oath of office to serve as President of the United States on January 20, 2021, is not Donald Trump or Joe Biden but . . . you.
How would you feel? Some of you might feel excited, but I suspect quite a few people would feel trepidation and pressure and think, “Ugh, what did I ever do to deserve this?”
Being president is going to stink for at least the next two years, and probably more — even by the historical standards of a job that appears to be powerful and glamorous but that tends to age its occupants about a decade for each term. The task of overcoming this virus and recovering from its enormous cost in human lives, human health, and economic ruin will rank among the greatest challenges in American history, and for a long while, the job of the president is going to be an endless series of hard choices, picking from menus with only bad options.
We don’t know exactly how our lives will be in January, but it’s not so far away that we can’t get some ideas.
If we’re lucky, we will have a vaccine. On the home page today, I talk about what the two months of self-quarantining and lockdowns have bought us in our fight against the virus. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise comes from the market-research firm MorningStar, which reviewed the work of a variety of pharmaceutical companies and concluded, “encouraging preclinical data, strong partnerships and funding, and rapid clinical progress all seem to indicate that use in high-risk populations could be possible by the end of 2020, with tens of millions of doses potentially available by that point.”
If that comes to pass, we would be able to inoculate our most vulnerable populations, and that would be a big step. But it would still take a long stretch of 2021 to bring the vaccine to all Americans, and any morally responsible American government would recognize a need to help the rest of the world get vaccinated, too. Depending upon how much this virus mutates and how much our immune systems can adapt to the changes in the virus, we may need regular vaccinations against it for the foreseeable future.
Yesterday, World Health Organization emergencies director Dr. Mike Ryan ruffled some feathers by warning that the coronavirus may never “go away.” He pointed out that we have a vaccine for measles, yet the measles killed 140,000 people worldwide in 2018 — mostly in the Third World, where people don’t have access to the vaccine. When roughly 130 million children are born each year, and the vaccination rate is 86 percent for the first shot and 70 percent for the second dose, you’re still going to leave a lot of vulnerable children out there.
And if and when that vaccine is developed and available for the general public . . . how does America handle the anti-vaccination crowd for this virus?
The American economy in January 2021 will probably better than it is now — a really low bar to clear! — but it will probably not be “back.” The Congressional Budget Office crunched the numbers for a projection and concluded the unemployment rate would “decline to 9.5 percent by the end of 2021. Under that projection, the unemployment rate at the end of 2021 would be about 6 percentage points higher than the rate in CBO’s economic projection produced in January 2020, and the labor force would have about 6 million fewer people.” By one count, “100,000 small businesses have shut permanently since the pandemic escalated in March.” One analyst thinks that by the time the pandemic is over, a million small businesses will have shut their doors permanently. People’s life savings will be gone.
Certain industries will probably never be the same. Air travel will probably only return slowly, and with it, most businesses connected to tourism — hotels, restaurants, shops, rides, amusement parks. Any business that involves large gatherings — conventions, concerts, sporting events without considerable television revenues — will be slow to recover. Movie-theater chains have no idea how they’ll get through this. Film and television production is halted. Professional sports leagues will carry on, but no one will be watching in person for a long while.
Will Americans trust nursing and long-term care homes with their elderly parents anymore? If enough Americans look at the past few months and conclude they can’t trust them with mom and dad, do those facilities bring in enough money to stay open?
Our medical community has responded in a way that should inspire legends of their heroism being told and retold for generations. But the cost of that Herculean effort, in terms of burnout, is going to be enormous. (I came across a quote from a doctor declaring, “physicians are the highest profession in terms of rates of suicide, that’s pre-COVID,” and that doesn’t seem to be statistically quite right. That said, I’ll bet the suicide rate among doctors is way higher than most expect, and the experience of watching patients die, over and over again, must be extremely psychologically stressful. Thankfully, most of us encounter death rarely and can put aside the grim thoughts about our own mortality. Doctors — and cops and firemen and other key professions — get reminded of this every day.)
When 2021 arrives, how many of America’s doctors will retire? Or need a lengthy sabbatical? Or be struggling with physical- and mental-health issues of their own?
The American education system can handle hobbling through the second half of the spring semester with distance learning. Teachers, kids, and parents are stressed, but almost everyone is doing the best they can in unforeseen and extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But if the nation’s schools don’t restart under something resembling normalcy in late August and September . . . do we run the risk of a generation of kids who are at least partially less-educated than their peers? The nation’s children have endured months of social distancing, and apparently have more months of this to come. Just what is that doing to their minds?
Reformers warned about the unsustainability of America’s higher-education system, with its runaway tuition hikes, for decades now. Now, large university systems are concluding that the fall semester will be entirely online, much most of the concluding spring semester. Why on earth would any parents or students pay a premium for a program run entirely through their computer?
The world beyond our borders is not going to be safer in the era of the coronavirus. China realizes the world will blame it if it doesn’t convince the world to blame America first. Iran is not going to become freer, more stable, or less extreme with a terrible, ever-increasing death toll. The same goes for most of Africa — 500,000 could die because their AIDS treatments are disrupted — South America, or India. God only knows what’s happening in North Korea right now. America’s food supply chain is secure, but many countries’ ability to get enough food to their people is not. Around the world, people are angry, scared, experiencing enormous economic disruption, and looking for scapegoats. It’s a fertile field for extremists looking to recruit new followers.
For most of 2020 and perhaps into 2021, Americans will not be able to gather in crowds. Handshakes may well be gone.
I think the aspect of this ordeal that I am contemplating the most these days is the psychological effect on all of us. We have been through tough times before, but this experience is different.
You may have noticed that in both your history education and the general discussion of American history in our culture, you read, heard, and saw very little about the 1918 Influenza outbreak. (The name is a little misleading; the waves of the pandemic continued into 1919, and even had a minor wave in 1920.) It’s odd hearing a decent amount about events shortly before, during, and after the outbreak — the sinking of the Titanic, the Ford Model-T coming to the market and the development of automobiles, the digging of the Panama Canal, the sinking of the Lusitania, World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the Roaring Twenties . . . but the deadliest pandemic in world history is so rarely mentioned, it’s almost airbrushed out of the picture.
On some level, that’s what the survivors of that pandemic wanted. Kenneth C. Davis, author of More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War, told PBS that once that pandemic was over, Americans just wanted to forget it. “The Spanish flu aspect of [World War One] has really been buried and hidden in history . . . It’s particularly complicated by the fact that so many people who lived through the Spanish flu didn’t want to talk about it or remember it — even some of the doctors who were on the front lines of trying to figure out this medical mystery of what was killing so many people, so quickly and so violently.”
Those insufferable commercials and celebrity videos declare, “We’re all in this together.” But we really aren’t. As I joked on the pop-culture podcast, if celebrities are going to declare that this is a time of unity and shared experiences, they should at least try to make their spacious southern California estates behind them look a little less luxurious. It has always been that if you were rich or well-connected, you could get through a crisis more easily than the poor and powerless. We’ve rarely had people feeling the need to show us how well they’re getting through it. Idris Elba is a terrific actor and I’m glad he recovered from the coronavirus. But when he proposes, “I think that the world should take a week of quarantine every year just to remember this time. Remember each other. I really do,” he is demonstrating that his quarantine was basically a pleasant “staycation.”
You thought populism was a powerful force in the world’s politics before the coronavirus? Just wait until afterwards. At this point, it is impossible to ignore the fact that most of the people calling for the reopening of society either no longer have a paycheck or are at risk of losing theirs. But everyone making the decisions to extend the lockdowns or publicly supporting that decision still has his. Even if they have the best of intentions and an accurate sense of the risk, the haves are choosing to further immiserate the have-nots.
It is as tall an order, and as complicated and multifaceted, as any president has faced — comparable to the challenge of the Cold War, or World War II, or the Great Depression, or the Civil War. Few in their right minds would want to be president right now. Even if you make many more right decisions than wrong ones, people will still be frustrated with the sweeping changes to our life, all driven by a virus jumping into humans from some bat. These will be remembered as extraordinarily different times.
Maybe you’re the kind of person who looks at the White House now and is thrilled at the prospect of four more years of this kind of steadiness, single-minded focus, overflowing empathy and magnanimousness, and even-headed rationality from President Donald Trump. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who watches Joe Biden’s remote interviews and remarks from his basement in Delaware and can’t wait to see that eloquence, concentration, attention to detail, and original ideas and sharp-minded incisiveness in the Oval Office next January. We are truly blessed to have these two vital, fresh, hale and hearty options before us this November.
ADDENDUM: Todd Myers with a surprising observation that the lockdown is not making the air cleaner, as many environmentalists contend: “According to the EPA’s air-quality monitors, levels of particulate matter — known as PM 2.5 — are not lower now and have, in fact, been higher recently than the median level of the last five years. Consisting of particles smaller than 2.5 microns, PM 2.5 includes natural sources such as smoke or sea salt, as well as human-caused pollution from combustion.”