Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Lucky Joe

The surprising continuity of America’s Covid response undermines Biden’s central boast

It is still early days, but the silliest quotation of the Biden era may prove to have been uttered on its first day. The source was not someone within the administration, but a close ally: ex-Obama chief of staff and former Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel.

Perhaps a little revved up by the pageantry of the inauguration he put the Biden presidency in historical context as follows: “Lincoln had the Civil War, Wilson had the pandemic, Roosevelt had the Depression, Kennedy had the height of the Cold War, and Johnson had unprecedented civil and social strife. Biden has D, all of the above.”

I hardly need to explain the almost offensive lack of perspective in the implication that Biden has a fuller in-tray than Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson combined. But the shamelessness with which Emanuel hyped the task faced by the new president is worth revisiting because it is representative of how Biden and his team hopes America will remember 2021: the year Joe saved America.

The White House’s version of recent events depends on an implausible claim: that the moment Biden took office was a decisive turning point without which there would be no end in sight to the pandemic or the associated economic crisis.

Now, I don’t want to downplay the success of the vaccine roll out, on which the Biden administration appears to be  working well with the states. (The European snafu is a reminder of what a less competent alternative looks like.) But the striking thing about the substance of America’s covid response is the continuity between administrations.

This week, Biden anticipated two milestones: 100 million shots in American arms and 100 million $1400 stimulus checks deposited in American bank accounts. This approach — shots in arms, checks in pockets — is the essence of its response to the pandemic. It’s also exactly how the Trump administration sought to respond to the plague: an aggressive push for vaccines and direct stimulus to the American people.

As has been well-documented, the success of the vaccination roll out being overseen by Biden builds on the success of operation warp speed, the Trump administration’s big bet on vaccine development. Critics dismissed this programme, and the then president’s optimism about the arrival of vaccines before the end of the year, as quixotic. Kamala Harris went on television to voice her doubts about the safety of a shot approved under Trump.

This White House cannot acknowledge the previous team’s part in this story; doing so would undermine the Joe to the Rescue story. And so instead it pushes a nonsense about inheriting “no plan” for doling out vaccines.

A similar dynamic can be seen on economic policy. The American Rescue Plan Act has been heralded as a progressive triumph. It is Democratic in flavour, of course, satisfying a long wish list of the party’s spending priorities (many of which have very little to do with the plague-induced economic slowdown). But the centrepiece of the package, the $1,400 stimulus checks that are its most expensive and most popular constituent part, are a continuation of the bipartisan relief delivered last year. Whatever you think of the direct stimulus (and every economist to the right of Paul Krugman seems to think it is a bad idea), it is a point of continuity not contrast between this president and his predecessor. “Trump bucks” have simply become Biden “stimmys”.

More generally, Democrats would have you believe that before they came riding to the rescue, the American people were left to tough it out alone. That, of course, is nonsense. In fact, thanks to government generosity, household incomes increased last year. The most recent relief package accounts for $1.9 trillion of the whopping $5.5 trillion in Covid relief spending in under a year. As the Manhattan Institute’s Michael Hendrix has pointed out, the total is more than the total cost of the Second World War to the US government ($4.8 trillion at 2021 prices).

The Biden administration knows the end is in sight. It knows that the US economy is set for a roaring comeback and, unsurprisingly, it is eager to claim as much of the credit as possible. A more honest assessment of the Biden Covid response so far would acknowledge the striking continuity between the two administrations’ work. Above all, it would recognise the extraordinary good timing of Biden’s arrival in the White House: at the exact moment vaccine supply was ramping up and Covid-19 cases were plummeting. America’s 46th president is not its most inspiring or most brilliant, but he may be among its luckiest.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover