President-elect Joe Biden made his election bid a referendum on Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But as he inherits the worst crisis since the Great Depression — a raging pandemic on top of a teetering economy — his plans to turn that around are set to collide with new political realities.
The closeness of the results underscore voters’ deep divisions about how they think the virus should be handled. And depending on the outcome of two Senate runoff elections, it is possible Biden will have to navigate a Republican-controlled Senate disinclined to support a greater federal role in testing and contact tracing, among other responsibilities now left mostly to the states.
“It’s going to be very challenging for Biden to implement some of the ambitious pandemic preparedness and response plans he has,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Time is not on his side either, as the country surpassed 128,000 cases on Friday, setting a record for the third straight day, and more than 1,000 people a day are dying — a toll that is expected to grow in coming weeks as the weather turns colder and many Americans retreat indoors. Projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington suggest the worst stretch of the pandemic is likely to hit in mid- to late January, just around the time Biden would take office.
The surge is expected to continue unless Trump undertakes aggressive new measures against the virus in his final two months — a prospect considered unlikely since he has repeatedly claimed the country was “rounding the turn” on the pandemic, even as cases and hospitalizations climbed.
Even before the race was officially called Saturday, Biden made clear in a speech Friday night that addressing the public health and economic crises would be his top priority.
“I want everyone to know on day one, we’re going to put our plan to control this virus into action. We can’t save any of the lives lost — any of those that have been lost — but we can save a lot of lives in the months ahead,” Biden said.
Biden has laid out a far more muscular federal approach than Trump, saying he would urge state and local leaders to implement mask mandates if needed, create a panel on the model of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Production Board to scale up testing and lay out detailed plans to distribute vaccines to 330 million people after they are greenlighted as safe and effective.
He has also talked about unifying the country and restoring public trust in the federal government’s message.
He plans to launch some of those efforts immediately, calling Republican and Democratic governors during the transition to urge them to adopt mask mandates and to communicate the importance of social distancing to their constituents, according to three Biden advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about these matters.
Biden’s goal, these people say, is to have people hear the same message from leaders at all levels of government and from members of both parties — something that has been lacking this past year as mask-wearing became a political flash point.
Several health experts, including some advising the Biden campaign, said it will be critical for him to have an effective communications strategy that targets not only his supporters, but also red-state officials and residents. Building consensus, not relying on federal mandates, will be the strategy, they said.
Some supporters predicted that Biden, who portrays himself as “Joe Lunchbucket” — not a member of the “coastal elite” — is in a good position to contact Trump supporters who may feel excluded and disrespected by Democrats, and distrustful of the election results. They also predicted that Biden will step up his emphasis on the economic pain caused by the pandemic.
Biden “needs to understand the split in this country,” said Walid Gellad, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “He should spend the next three months trying to figure out how to convince the other side that is not aligned with him.”
Another thing that Biden can do without Congress is reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization — which has not yet been finalized — and begin holding briefings with government scientists and health experts, as he has repeatedly vowed to do. He also can implement mask mandates on all federal property.
But other aspects of his response will be more difficult in a fractured nation. Until there is a widely available vaccine — which is not expected until mid- to late 2021 — much of Biden’s plan depends on persuading people to change their behavior. That task looks considerably more difficult after Tuesday’s results, health experts said, especially because millions of Americans may not accept the election results as Trump spreads baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud.
Much of Biden’s plan will also require money from Congress, including dramatically ramping up testing and contact tracing and providing schools and businesses with billions of dollars to safely reopen. Control of the Senate will hinge on the results of two runoff elections in early January in Georgia, once considered a conservative stronghold, which will determine whether Democrats achieve the control of Congress they sought to pass a massive stimulus bill that was a nonstarter for Senate Republicans.
With Trump sowing doubt about the election results, Biden officials are also preparing for Trump to block hundreds of Biden transition team members from gaining access to government resources as required by law. The Biden campaign has already spent months working with career civil servants in a process that happens every four years.
Biden also has a task force focused on the pandemic, made up of experts and people likely to take leading roles in the administration. That task force includes subgroups focused on issues such as testing, personal protective equipment and vaccine distribution, according to three people familiar with the plans.
Biden and his vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, received a briefing Thursday about the public health and economic crises from a team that includes Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general under Barack Obama, and David Kessler, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The pair, who have briefed Biden on the pandemic since March, discussed the spike in cases along with other developments to help him with plans to “get the virus under control and get our economy fully open safely,” said a campaign official.
The Biden camp already has begun discussing possible candidates for jobs in health and science agencies, though campaign officials stress no decisions have been made.
Ron Klain, a senior Biden campaign adviser who served as the Obama administration’s Ebola “czar,” is expected to play a leading role in the COVID-19 response in whichever White House job he ends up with. Jake Sullivan, a top policy adviser to Biden’s campaign, is also expected to be in line for a top job on health issues.
Murthy, the former surgeon general, is also expected to play a key role in the response. He is seen as a possible nominee to a high post, such as Health and Human Services Secretary, and is known as someone with a warm manner and good communications skills.
Among the names mentioned for FDA commissioner is Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and principal deputy commissioner of the FDA during the Obama administration.
Biden has vowed to dramatically ramp up the country’s testing capacity and contact-tracing efforts, but both initiatives will require significant money from Congress — and prospects for Congress to deliver any new economic relief or a health-care spending package next year are highly uncertain.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — who is likely to retain that title if Republicans keep their majority — said this week that he would like to pass new COVID-19 relief measures during Congress’s lame-duck session. He designated money for small businesses, schools and hospitals and said funding for state and local governments — a major Democratic priority — could also be included. He also said more money might need to go toward testing, treatment and vaccine development and distribution.
“Clearly the coronavirus is not gone,” McConnell said at a news conference Wednesday in Kentucky. “In fact, we’ve got it worse now than we had in the spring. You can keep pumping money into the economy forever and it won’t solve the problem until we kill the virus.”
It is unclear whether Democrats will support McConnell’s plan. Pelosi had begun pivoting toward next year, when she hoped a Democratic Senate and Biden as president could deliver a much larger package, along the lines of the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act the House passed in May, which Biden endorsed.
Biden allies point to his ability to negotiate with McConnell during fiscal cliff negotiations when he was vice president but also note the political landscape has changed considerably since Trump took office.
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The Washington Post’s Erica Werner contributed to this report.