President Joe Biden made a surprising comment in his first remarks to the nation’s governors about the federal response to the pandemic: the states are in the driver’s seat with Washington mainly playing a supporting role.
“Look, there is no federal solution. This gets solved at the state level,” he said. “And then ultimately gets down to where the rubber meets the road, and that’s where the patient is in need of help or preventing the need for help.”
Constitutionally, there is no question Biden is right. States have police powers. The federal government does not. This is especially true if you believe, as much of the Biden administration clearly does, that the path forward is more vaccine and mask mandates.
Sweeping state emergency powers were largely left unmolested while Biden’s attempt to impose a vaccine mandate on large private employers has been tied up in courts. (Far fewer people have constitutional scruples about the federal government’s taxing and spending powers.)
But Biden leads a party that increasingly wishes the United States was a unitary state, not a federal constitutional republic. And federalism isn’t what many of his subordinates had in mind when it came to the pandemic.
“I’ve been saying since March that we can’t beat COVID with an ‘Articles of Confederation’ response,” Ron Klain, Biden’s Twitter-happy White House chief of staff, wrote on the social media website during last year’s campaign. “We have a national government for a reason. If Donald Trump won’t use it to beat this killer disease, I know someone who will, starting on 1/20/21.”
The more shameless Biden surrogates are also speaking differently about the pandemic. No more talk of “shutting down the virus.” Such rhetoric has been repealed and replaced with a more nuanced call to arms.
“As we recognize that covid-19 is not a deadly or even severe disease for the vast majority of responsible Americans, we can stop agonizing over ‘cases’ and focus on those who are hospitalized or at risk of dying,” tweeted Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin.
The shift in tone comes as COVID-19 has ceased to be an unambiguous political strength for the White House ahead of next year’s midterm elections. It’s also the case that Omicron is spreading through heavily vaccinated blue states and can no longer be blamed on red-state rubes or reckless Republican governors. There is little electoral advantage to be had or virtue to signal.
It is becoming increasingly clear that almost the entirety of Biden’s substantive plan to contend with the coronavirus, said during the campaign to be his main qualification for the presidency relative to his general election opponent, was increased government spending and reliance on technocratic prowess. The latter in particular undoubtedly accelerated the rollout of the vaccines, until the administration was caught flat-footed by the hesitancy prevalent in many communities.
Beyond that, Biden differed from former President Donald Trump only in an unwillingness to dissent from ever-changing Centers for Disease Control guidelines and avoiding rhetorical excess (that’s why bleach ingestion remains a prominent White House talking point almost a year into the new presidency).
None of this has proven sufficient to put an end to the pandemic, at least to the degree Biden hinted was possible on the campaign trail if voters would merely expel Trump, once the variants began to sweep the land. To be sure, the country is much more vaccinated. But the virus is not shut down.
The good news is that this could lead to more realistic expectations about the things the government at any level can do about COVID-19: resources for hospitals, increased testing, vaccine availability, enhanced production, expedited approval for therapeutics and new treatments. Perhaps, though less likely, there will be less enthusiasm for making overgeneralized political points based on waves in states with governors of a certain party.
It is, nevertheless, a climbdown for Biden. He promised to be able to deliver normalcy, first defeating the Orange Man, then the virus. Instead, he is all but admitting this was never really feasible, beyond the morale boost his election would provide to COVID-cautious supporters who were looking for a reassuring political change.
To many voters, including those likely to decide which party controls Congress after the midterms, it is no longer so reassuring.
W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? You can follow home on Twitter: @Jimantle.