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Biden Is Not Nailing the "Back to Normal" Message
He hit some of the right notes in the State of the Union, but he's still not meeting the country where it is on COVID.
“We can end the shutdown of schools and businesses,” President Biden said in yesterday’s State of the Union Address. Also, “We are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.” And, “Thanks to the progress we have made in the past year, COVID-19 no longer need control our lives.”
Do you see the problem with this messaging? It’s that, for so much of the country, these things already happened months ago. Biden is giving people permission to do things they’re already doing — which does not inspire confidence that he understands and is addressing the aspects of COVID disruption that are still rendering our lives abnormal, even as we seek to return to normal.
This disconnect was reflected even within his own speech. “Our schools are open,” he noted, correctly, shortly after he said we could end the shutdown of schools. What Biden didn’t address is that the key problem with normal right now in schools is not widespread closure but irregular operation: schools and daycares generally open but impacted by surprise closure days, or subjected to quarantine requirements not used for other infectious diseases, that make these institutions less reliably available than they’re supposed to be.
The other key aspect of abnormal in these places is masking requirements, which Biden did note should be falling away with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. But this update was still tentative — masks can come off in some places, and in other places should be able to come off soon, but the guidance will still keep changing and changing as conditions change.
The whole frame assumes people are hanging on the CDC’s every word, and some local policymakers in fact are doing that. But Biden failed to articulate a broader vision about normalcy.
The speech should have hit a more empathetic note about how disruptive all this disruption has been to people, including the way masks come between us to inhibit interpersonal interaction, and how they disrupt the educational process. That empathetic note is necessary because Biden can’t and shouldn’t (and didn’t) promise no more masks ever. By talking about the very real costs of masking and quarantines and closures of in-person offices, you can then talk about how you will weigh those costs to ensure that whatever COVID fighting measures are implemented in the future don’t bring costs to society that outweigh their benefits. Telling people that you hear them about how costly all of this has been is an important step toward establishing trust that the measures you will take in the future are accounting for their concerns and values — while still reserving the option to set new restrictions.
That said, one part of the messaging Biden handled better was encouraging people to feel safe going out and doing normal things.
“It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people,” he said. “People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices.”
Office work is one of the activity categories that remains far below pre-COVID levels. To some extent, that’s by choice, and it reflects people adapting to new normal routines they like better than the old ones. But other people would like to get out of their homes (and perhaps out of their spouses’ and children’s hair) and see their co-workers, and commuting to work is important for restoring urban life and business activity in downtowns, so Biden is right that we should have more of it.
I wish he’d talked in more romantic terms about other, non-work aspects of return to normal life, about which people probably have more unalloyed excitement than they have about returning to the office. People should go to restaurants and the theater. They should travel, visit American vacation destinations, see our great national parks. Of course, many people are doing these things already, but some could use a nudge from the president they like and trust.
Speaking of which, the president should be doing more to bring the federal government he oversees more in line with his own rhetoric about normalcy. He can advise the country — and advise state and local governments — to normalize their operations, but that rings a bit hollow when agencies he directly controls aren’t doing so.
Biden noted that new CDC guidance means masks are no longer generally recommended indoors in much of the country. But the Transportation Security Administration continues to require masks in all airports, and the National Park Service continues to require masks in all its indoor spaces nationwide, and even on crowded hiking trails. Biden should instruct those agencies to lift those rules, as he should do with any other federal rules more restrictive than the CDC guidance. He should talk about the process by which the TSA will lift its mask mandate, which extends not just to airplanes but also to transit vehicles. Currently, it’s set to expire on March 18 — if it’s not going to end then, he should explain why, and what would cause it to be lifted in the future.
Biden also touted the fact that most federal workers will soon be working in the office again, which is good, if overdue. The two-year closure of Social Security Administration offices has been unjustified and is interfering with people’s access to one of the crown jewel federal social programs that Democrats are supposed to care most about. Those offices are still in the process of reopening. Embassies and consulates around the world are shamefully backed up on visa interviews and issuances — a problem that is not just keeping US immigrant families from seeing their non-citizen loved ones, but also exacerbating the shortage of workers and holding back economic growth and the return to normal in commerce.
On this last point, COVID disruption is directly interfering with the president’s own policy agenda — because the State Department and USCIS aren’t working like they should, he can’t get immigration levels back up and he can’t get as many businesses back to full staffing as he would like. The president should use this as a lesson for COVID hawks in his own party about the importance of returning to normal. But he has to practice what he preaches and actually get the consular staff at State back to its normal level of visa production.
Finally, there is a way to marry the “return to normal” message with a highly optimistic note about our country’s future. The president did this in a couple of key places in his speech — talking about fighting inflation by expanding the productive capacity of the economy, and talking at the end about new investments in cancer research.
There is a more direct COVID tie to be drawn here: That even as the pandemic has imposed terrible human and economic costs, it’s also forced us to learn ways to be more productive and more effective, and we can take those lessons into a post-COVID future. Some advances in medical technology, such as mRNA vaccines, should have applications for diseases far beyond COVID. Ventilation investments that improve indoor air quality can fight other airborne infections. And new business processes intended to adapt to social distancing in some cases have produced durable productivity gains that accommodate more flexible working arrangements.
This won’t be the last time the president has to talk about the way forward out of COVID, and he’ll have more opportunities to hit more of these notes and signal our way out of the COVID emergency and into an optimistic future. So I hope he’ll be doing that in the coming weeks and months. It’s going to be a necessary component of any messaging about why Americans should be satisfied enough with his administration to re-elect Democrats in November and let him retain his razor-thin majorities in Congress.
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