Nov 4, 2020 - Health

Joe Biden's uphill climb to control the coronavirus

Illustration of a hand holding a coronavirus cell.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Joe Biden has vowed to get the pandemic under control, but if he ultimately wins the White House — whenever we finally know a winner — he would take office facing the same partisan headwinds that have undermined America’s response all along.

Why it matters: Biden would likely take office at the height of an acute crisis, and calls for more mask wearing or tighter social distancing measures would face deeply entrenched partisan resistance in much of the country.

What he could do: Experts say there are a handful of tangible policy responses a Biden administration could pursue to try to control the pandemic, which will likely be spreading wildly by January.

  • A big stimulus bill could provide more money for testing and help people afford to stay home, though Democrats' dwindling chances of controlling the Senate make that less likely.
  • Vaccine distribution would likely ramp up in earnest after Inauguration Day. One or more effective vaccines is probably the most potent tool a Biden administration would have.

What they’re saying: Aside from those more tangible solutions, experts put a big premium on communication and public messaging.

  • “The president’s real power in a situation like this is to communicate and be taken seriously and have people listen,” said Eric Toner, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “He can affect what the governors do by affecting what the people think.”

Yes, but: A lot of Americans — and Republican governors in particular — don't want to hear that message, especially if it includes more government-mandated safety measures.

  • Partisan attitudes about social distancing have already been baked in, and a polarized media environment has likely only exacerbated the problem.
  • The same people and politicians who have resisted voluntary mitigation measures, even under a Republican president, will make any communications effort an uphill climb for Biden.
  • “How would Biden be able to penetrate through that? The answer is he’s not going to be able to,” Columbia’s Jeffrey Shaman said. “So there is going to have to be, in addition, policies put in place.”

“I don’t see a President Biden declaring a national lockdown and the governor of South Dakota saying sure,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

The other side: Experts hope there's some room for a communication strategy to work, for people who are simply confused.

  • “What they need is FDR-like fireside chats. That by itself would be I think very important — helping people understand what we’re trying to do here. Right now, I don’t think they have a sense," said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
  • “A lot of it can be turned around, because really what it all boils down to is what individual people do,” Toner said.

The bottom line: “It’s not that hard. The hard part…is the political will and cooperation issue,” Shaman said. “And how you message that in a divided America is hard for me to say.”

  • And if Trump wins a second term, expect more of the same — but with the help of a vaccine.
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