On Monday, a Trump-appointed judge of questionable legal credentials and an appetite for fileting the English language struck down the CDC’s requirement that “a person must wear a mask while boarding, disembarking, and traveling on any conveyance into or within the United States.” Within hours, major carriers lifted the mask requirements, in some cases during flights, sandbagging passengers who’d taken comfort knowing their fellow passengers were masked. It is difficult to assess whether or not the lifting of the mandate will have an impact on public health, but at least one carrier, Delta Airlines, was initially willing to plump up its assessment with some magical thinking: In an eventually retracted statement, Delta said, “We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as Covid-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus”—badly botching the definitions of both “ordinary” and “seasonal.”
It would have been nice if the Biden administration had been as quick on the draw. In a press conference after the decision, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki could only profess “disappointment” over the decision, coupled with a wan recommendation that passengers continue to wear masks. Meanwhile, an anonymous lobbyist suggested to The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin that the administration was perhaps not that “upset about the ruling,” presumably because any blame for what ill effects might follow could now be laid at the GOP’s doorstep. On Tuesday, according to Politico, White House officials essentially passed the buck between various executive branch agencies, looking for some sucker to take responsibility for whatever came next. Come Wednesday, the Department of Justice finally announced it would appeal the decision.
Given that the ruling was tantamount to an existential threat on the Centers for Disease Control ability to … you know, control disease, it was a remarkably passive way for the administration to do public health communication, let alone politics. But this is your Democratic Party on midterms: walking on eggshells, striving to avoid being divisive, and straining its metacarpal ligaments as it crosses its fingers with white-knuckle force. The administration’s pandemic mitigation strategy, such as it is, has been sucked into the 2022 election’s psychic vortex; Covid is just one more thing that might upset the pieces on this election cycle’s 11th-dimensional chess board.
As Politico’s Adam Cancryn recently reported, the Biden administration’s current policy toward Covid boils down to putting on a determinedly optimistic face in public while hyperventilating with angst behind the scenes. “The White House is publicly arguing that the country has finally arrived at a promising new stage in the pandemic fight,” writes Cancryn. “Underneath the displays of confidence, however, is simmering anxiety.” White House officials are relieved that hospitalizations are down, but simultaneously wary of rising Covid caseloads—and there’s reason to believe that new cases are currently going underreported. One “close to the White House” source characterized the mood: “They’re like, ‘We don’t know if this is something to be worried about or not.’ … But you can’t tell the public that.”
The real disappointment, to borrow Psaki’s word, is that things could have been so much different. TNR contributors Ian Beacock and Heidi Tworek long ago laid out a detailed plan for how the president, by repeatedly coupling “clear scientific information with emotional intelligence and repeated reference to democratic values,” could use presidential rhetoric to ignite the civic spirit and lead a fight against both the Covid-19 virus as well as the forces that seek to tear democracy asunder. The White House’s initial response to the overruling of the mask mandate fell dreadfully short. With the pressures of the November midterm elections only mounting, it’s hard to imagine the administration doing more public health communication—not if it’s trying to sell the idea that we’ve reached “a promising new stage” in the battle against Covid, even as there are no guarantees against future spikes caused by new variants.
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This week made clear that Biden isn’t up for a Covid fight. I’d argue that he was never up for it. When he took office, there was an opportunity to strategize against future surges and variants, scale up the production of masks and at-home rapid tests, fund research into long Covid, provide financial support for immunocompromised patients and a path to getting them back to normal life, campaign on indoor air quality improvements, and vaccinate the planet.
Yes, the administration would have had to battle like hell against the Republican lawmakers and skittish Democrats who would oppose this comprehensive and common-sense plan. But it would have been a fight worth having, fought from a position of strength. It would have been more inspiring to watch them fail valiantly doing the right thing than watch them blanch in the face of a reckless judge, sitting behind closed doors anxiously hoping that the worst is over.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.