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Biden’s 2020 message rests on Trump’s fundamental Covid-19 failure

“Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to the nation.”

Joe Biden said in his DNC acceptance speech that Donald Trump had failed in “his most basic duty” as president with the Covid-19 response.
David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Joe Biden cut right to the point on Thursday night: The Covid-19 pandemic reflects a dereliction of Donald Trump’s duty as president.

“Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to the nation. He’s failed to protect us. He’s failed to protect America. And my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable,” Biden said in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency. “As president I’ll make you a promise. I’ll protect America, I’ll defend us from every attack, seen and unseen, always, without exception, every time.”

In Biden’s telling, the Trump administration owned “by far the worst performance of any nation on Earth” in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The choice could not be more clear. No rhetoric is needed. Just judge this president on the facts. Five million Americans infected by Covid-19. More than 170,000 Americans have died,” Biden said. “The tragedy of where we are today is it didn’t have to be this bad. Just look around. It’s not this bad in Canada or Europe or Japan or almost anywhere else in the world.”

You could quibble with “by far,” but Foreign Policy’s new index of Covid-19 responses across the world puts the United States near the very bottom, along with Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran, and China. The country ranks behind economic peers in Europe, as well as New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and a number of sub-Saharan African countries.

Biden promised competence. Throughout the convention, really since the beginning of his campaign, the former vice president has been running on two basic ideas: 1) Trump does not reflect America’s values and 2) I can do the job well. And the job starts with understanding a very basic fact: We can’t resume normal life until Covid-19 is under control.

He listed the ways he would do it: expanding testing, manufacturing more medical supplies, implementing a national mask mandate, and offering more resources for schools to safely reopen. But he wasn’t dwelling on the details. He was just promising to have a plan.

“As president the first step I will take will be to get control of the virus,” Biden said. “Because I understand what this president hasn’t from the beginning: We will never get our economy back on track, we will never get our kids safely back in school, we will never have our lives back until we deal with this virus.

Biden’s story has a lot of truth in it. No words I could muster would match this searing indictment from The Atlantic’s acclaimed science journalist Ed Yong:

A month before his inauguration, I wrote that “the question isn’t whether [Trump will] face a deadly outbreak during his presidency, but when.” Based on his actions as a media personality during the 2014 Ebola outbreak and as a candidate in the 2016 election, I suggested that he would fail at diplomacy, close borders, tweet rashly, spread conspiracy theories, ignore experts, and exhibit reckless self-confidence. And so he did.

No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal; that a scion of nepotism would hand control of a shadow coronavirus task force to his unqualified son-in-law; that an armchair polymath would claim to have a “natural ability” at medicine and display it by wondering out loud about the curative potential of injecting disinfectant; that an egotist incapable of admitting failure would try to distract from his greatest one by blaming China, defunding the WHO, and promoting miracle drugs; or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”

Biden, most fundamentally, is promising to take responsibility.

“After all this time the president still does not have a plan,” he said Thursday night. “Well, I do.”

What President Joe Biden would do to stop Covid-19

I asked some experts last month how Biden’s proposed Covid-19 response differs from what the current federal government has done. They pointed to a few specific provisions in his plans:

  • Establishing a public-private “pandemic testing board” to scale up and allocate testing across the country. (“This would deal with one of the problems we still seem to have, that supply and demand are out of sync,” says Jennifer Kates with the Kaiser Family Foundation.)
  • Creating a state and local government emergency fund that would pay for medical supplies, hiring more health care workers, and providing overtime pay for certain essential workers.
  • Eliminating cost-sharing for Covid-19 testing and treatment — and changing the law so that provision would apply to future public health emergencies.
  • Setting minimum standards for the number of testing sites in each state, including 10 mobile or drive-through sites.
  • Establishing a national public health jobs corps, which would employ at least 100,000 people to do contact tracing.

Some of these items — contact tracing specifically — have been more or less ignored by the Trump administration, even though public health experts say it is necessary to safely relax social distancing. Contact tracers can identify new clusters and potentially prevent wider outbreaks. But as NPR reported, right now most states do not have enough people to perform that job.

“Contact tracing has been mostly ignored at the federal level, and states have been left to prioritize as they see fit,” Joshua Michaud at the Kaiser Family Foundation told me. “Which means that some have done more and others have done much less.”

The on-and-off supply shortages that lead to test results being delayed to the point that they are nearly worthless for contact tracing also reflect the lack of a national coordinated strategy. State and local governments are going to need another injection of stimulus to fend off debilitating staff and service cuts, but the latest stimulus talks have stalled out because Democrats want to put more money in the package but the Trump White House wants less.

That is indicative of the Trump administration’s overall approach: hands off. The New York Times reported last month that the White House has tried to delegate as much responsibility as it could to the states, hoping to instead focus on an economic message for the reelection campaign.

Biden is promising much more aggressive federal intervention. As he said in his acceptance speech, concluding his list of Covid-19 policies: “In short, we’ll do what we should have done from the very beginning.”

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