An anecdote: On Jan. 19, a friend was standing in a short line at the post office in his Midwestern city. In due course he reached the window, conducted his business and turned to leave. A patron near the end of the line caught his eye and grumbled, "This line’s gonna be a lot longer once Biden gets in." The next day Biden got in.
This incident approaches parody, but only by a little. After all, Joe Biden was accused of closet communism. Such outsized hyperbole ensures that many committed Trump voters will resist Biden’s administration from the start. But the anecdote serves to remind us of two things:
First, the quality of governance, good or bad, often takes time to become evident. Second, governance can be measured. There are various ways to illustrate this, but the pandemic is a good test of these two principles.
In September, President Donald Trump asserted that his administration’s response to COVID was "phenomenal" and that it deserved an "A+," even though 200,000 Americans had died. Since then another 220,000 have died. Many more will certainly die before the pandemic is under control.
Further, even though we have an apparently effective vaccine, the Trump administration did not develop the infrastructure necessary to administer it to 330 million Americans quickly and efficiently.
In short, metrics and the passage of time suggest that the Trump administration did not do a good job of handling the pandemic. In short, bad governance.
The former administration contends otherwise, and this is a touchy point with many Trump supporters who insist that his administration was blindsided by an overwhelming problem and that no other president could have produced a better response.
But clearly the country would be in a very different—and much better—place if the Trump administration had done only two things early in the pandemic:
First, many lives could have been saved if mask-wearing had been supported by the administration as soon as common sense and science understood how effective they are in stemming the spread of the virus. Last summer, studies from M.I.T. and the University of British Columbia concluded that 40,000 lives could have been saved if a mask mandate had been in place during April and May.
And in November, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projected that 130,000 lives could be saved if 95% of Americans take mask-wearing seriously over the next three months.
Unfortunately, masks were hopelessly politicized by Trump. Of course we don’t like mandates, but 170,000 lives is a lot.
Second, the Trump administration failed to develop a national plan that included the infrastructure necessary for the efficient inoculation of all Americans. It knew a vaccine was coming; plans should have been developed as early as March to be ready to distribute it.
We can quibble over what grade to award Trump for his administration’s response to COVID, but let’s agree that it shouldn’t be an A+.
The virus is still our biggest and most immediate challenge. On his first full day in office, Biden released a 200-page national plan that attempts to remedy many of the shortcomings of the Trump administration’s response, including provisions to speed up the administration of the vaccine to all Americans. Further, it implements a mask mandate on federal property and for interstate travel. And it presses the notion that mask-wearing is a good thing for everyone. This alone will save lives.
In short, a very different sort of governance is being applied to the pandemic by the Biden administration. Before long we’ll be able to tell if it’s working. The numbers will tell the story.
In the meantime, my appeal is to Trump voters who might be more persuadable than the disgruntled postal patron above. There may be a lot about President Biden that you don’t like. But in the matter of the pandemic, at least, he appears to be showing more empathy, energy and competence than Trump did. Let’s give him a little time to see if his approach works. Then we’ll see how well he can govern otherwise.
John M. Crisp wrote this piece for Tribune News Service.