THROW DEEP — After President Barack Obama took office during an economic crisis, his $800 billion stimulus bill included all kinds of progressive policies unrelated to the crisis. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, memorably (and, to some, notoriously) explained that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
President Joe Biden is now pushing a much larger $2 trillion stimulus bill for the Covid crisis, on top of $4 trillion worth of stimulus that already passed under Trump. And yet, in the Rahmian sense of the phrase, Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress seem perfectly willing to let this crisis go to waste.
Obama’s Recovery Act included unprecedented investments in clean energy, medical research and electronic health records, the largest infrastructure investment since the interstate highways, the Race to the Top education reforms and other down payments on Obama’s long-term agenda. And it still provided enough short-term economic stimulus to help end the Great Recession by June 2009.
By contrast, Biden’s proposal is relentlessly focused on fighting the virus and relieving current economic pain. It’s a textbook example of the “timely, temporary and targeted” relief that economists recommend for short-term stimulus. Except for a $15 minimum wage, which Biden would describe as economic relief, the new president didn’t try to smuggle any of his long-term “Build Back Better” agenda into the Covid package. And if Democrats use budget reconciliation to enact it with only 50 votes in the Senate, they won’t be able to use reconciliation to advance the Biden agenda until fiscal 2022, which is at least a month away.
By then, this crucial window of opportunity will have closed. One progressive policy wonk on Biden’s transition team fretted that if Democrats devote this year’s reconciliation bill to short-term Covid relief, then lose their majority next year, the 2022 reconciliation could be their last chance for years to expand health coverage, create universal pre-K and finance aggressive action on climate change, housing and other party priorities. And it’s tough to pass major legislation in an election year.
“These are generational decisions,” the transition wonk said.
The 2009 stimulus focused so much on Obama’s long-term priorities that one writer — OK, this writer — titled a book about it: The New New Deal. It really did change the country by jump-starting a green revolution powered by solar, wind and electric vehicles; dragging health care into the digital era; and creating new programs to prevent homelessness and reward innovation in transportation.
But the stimulus was extremely unpopular, and some of those non-emergency investments got terrible press, from research studies of cocaine-addicted monkeys to a loan to the doomed solar manufacturer Solyndra to the bumpy rollout of a high-speed rail initiative that was Biden’s favorite stimulus program.
Biden ran the Recovery Act, and he seems disinclined to risk a New New New Deal. It’s not even clear that 50 Democratic senators, particularly Joe Manchin of West Virginia, would support one. The Biden team has clearly learned some lessons from the Obama stimulus — the importance of going big, the danger of relying on Republican cooperation — and perhaps it has also concluded that using a crisis to advance a separate agenda can backfire politically.
But another lesson of the Obama stimulus is that you can stuff a lot of progressive policy into a massive bill. Yet another is that policy doesn’t get any easier to pass over time.
ONE STEP AHEAD — There’s a race on, between the virus and vaccinations. The stakes are high. If the virus wins, the pandemic could stretch on for another year or more. If the vaccinations win (and everything else goes right), then the end of the pandemic could come as soon as this fall.
The two pulled neck and neck earlier this week. On Monday, for the first time, the total number of people who received a shot (26.5 million) surpassed the total number of recorded Covid infections in the U.S (26.3 million). New daily cases are dropping across much of the country and vaccinations are on the rise.
But don’t count the virus out just yet.
Today 116,960 new Covid cases were recorded in the U.S. The actual number is probably several times higher — not everyone who has the virus gets tested — but the recorded numbers are still a huge drop from the January peaks.
There’s no one reason why Covid cases are falling. Travel, an underappreciated form of spread, has been down the past few days after holiday spikes. TSA screened 493,338 people on Tuesday compared with nearly 1.2 million a month earlier on Jan. 2.
Or maybe enough people have gotten the virus to slow its spread somewhat. Or people might be more consistent about wearing masks and avoiding venturing out, because they don’t want to get sick when their chance at a shot is within sight.
The pace of vaccinations is also up, but it’s not yet high enough to make a dent in the overall case numbers. About 1.3 million vaccine doses were administered today throughout the U.S. The country is averaging 1.34 million shots a day during the last week, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker, a pace that’s well above the million-a-day goal set by Biden.
The pace of vaccinations needs to be “many, many, many,” times higher than the pace of new cases, former CDC Director Tom Frieden told Nightly. “The case numbers are still astronomically high,” he said. They are well above the daily new case counts throughout most of 2020. The pace of vaccinations is about half to one-third of where it needs to be to get about 80 percent of the country immunized by the fall, which is looking like an increasingly lofty goal.
The possibility of mutations is what gives the virus a chance to win the race. Several mutations that have cropped up in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil are now in the U.S., though the country’s lack of genetic surveillance makes it hard to say for certain how widespread they are.
The new strains make Covid far more contagious than before and turbocharge the disease’s spread. The U.K. variant could become the dominant strain in the U.S., creating a surge of cases within six to 14 weeks, said Michael Osterholm, a member of the Biden transition’s Covid-19 advisory board on Sunday.
It’s only a matter of time before the fast spread of new variants decimates Black populations that are disproportionately affected by Covid and less likely to get a shot, argues Peter Hotez at the Baylor College of Medicine.
The more the virus circulates in the U.S., the more likely that a new variant emerges that can evade a vaccine’s defenses. Researchers are eyeing a strain, which originated in Brazil, that seems to make people who have gotten Covid before especially prone to reinfection. Now is not the time to let up on mask wearing and social distancing.
Right now, vaccines seem effective at keeping people from getting severely sick. Death rates will start to come down in March, Frieden predicts, as more people, especially nursing home residents, become fully vaccinated.
“The race against time is the race against the next unknown strains,” Nina Fefferman, an epidemiologist at the University of Tennessee told Nightly. “The more people we can vaccinate, the more we are cutting off routes of escape.”
Yet there is a chance that the race between the vaccine and virus never ends, with researchers reformulating vaccines and distributing boosters on a regular basis to keep ahead of mutations.
JOE BIDEN, HOMEBODY — Since he moved in two weeks ago, Biden has taken to strolling around the White House. He’s popped into the press offices. He’s walked to the East Wing to visit the military office, which handles everything from food service to presidential transportation. And on the day the Senate confirmed his secretary of State, the president stopped by the office of Antony Blinken’s wife, White House Cabinet Secretary Evan Ryan, to congratulate their family.
Donald Trump would often bristle when any of his four successive chiefs of staff tried to organize his time and control who could walk into the Oval Office. Those days are over, White House correspondent Anita Kumar writes.
Biden has a schedule crafted largely by a trio of gatekeepers who have been with him for years, according to three people familiar with the setup: chief of staff Ron Klain; Annie Tomasini, director of Oval Office operations, who has been described as “the person who runs his life;” and Ashley Williams, who sits outside the Oval Office as a type of executive assistant but was given the title of deputy director of Oval Office operations to signify her importance.
Some top aides, including senior adviser Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, have Oval Office walk-in privileges. So do Biden’s dogs — one of the two German Shepherds, Major, visited him recently in the Oval Office, according to a White House official.
Biden has replaced in-person meetings with video calls. He allows only a limited number of people in the building; even staff that normally would have been in the West Wing are working from home or in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door. He doesn’t leave the White House often, though he did go to the Capitol to honor the police officer killed at the Jan. 6 riot and to visit wounded soldiers. He isn’t planning foreign or domestic trips.
And until this week, when he invited senators of both parties to talk about Covid recovery legislation, he was not inviting visitors to the White House.
MCCARTHY HAS CHENEY’S BACK — House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy offered a full-throated defense of Rep. Liz Cheney today to Republicans and made the case for her to stay in leadership, delivering a critical boost for the Wyoming Republican as she fights to hang on to her No. 3 position.
DEMS SCHEDULE MTG DECISION DAY — House Democrats are moving ahead with a vote Thursday to strip freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) of her committee assignments after Republican leaders refused to act unilaterally, instead attacking Democrats for intervening, Melanie Zanona and Heather Caygle write.
The already tense situation escalated significantly today, with Democrats rejecting a last-minute pitch from McCarthy to call off the vote if Republicans agreed to an alternative form of punishment. McCarthy then put out a statement slamming Democrats and accusing them of a “partisan power grab.”
— Newsom waiting on California AG: Gov. Gavin Newsom said today that he will wait until Attorney General Xavier Becerra is confirmed as Biden’s HHS secretary before announcing a replacement.
— Europe troop withdrawal “on hold”: Plans to draw down thousands of U.S. troops from Germany, pushed by the Trump administration, are on hold as Biden’s team reviews the decision, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe said today.
— Canada labels Proud Boys a terrorist entity: Canada said the group’s members “played a pivotal role” in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead.
— Biden’s big bet on executive orders: In the latest POLITICO Dispatch, Natasha Korecki looks at the strategy behind the White House’s early slew of executive orders — and whether Biden is muffling his message of bipartisanship and unity.
COVID COURT IN SESSION — Are you in the middle of a Covid safety argument? Do you have an unresolved disagreement over Covid risk management with a relative or colleague? Ask Renu to issue a ruling! Email your pandemic disputes to [email protected].
CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION — A growing number of Germans and Americans are feeling dissatisfied with their country’s pandemic response, according to a study published today.
A Pew Research Center survey found that just 41 percent of U.S. respondents said their country had done a good job dealing with the coronavirus crisis, down from 47 percent in June. In Germany, approval remained high but also declined, from 88 percent in June to 77 percent in December, when cases in the country surged.
In France and the United Kingdom, meanwhile, opinion remained fairly stable across the same time period. Brits felt slightly more positive about their country’s approach, with approval rising from 46 to 48 percent. In France, approval declined slightly, from 59 to 54 percent.
‘HAIL MARY IN THE SUPER BOWL’ — Republican senators are discouraging Trump’s lawyers from raising discredited election fraud claims to defend the former president during the Senate’s upcoming trial, a day after Trump’s defense team advanced those arguments in its first official response to the House’s impeachment charge, Andrew Desiderio writes.
GOP senators warned Trump’s lawyers today that relitigating the false claims would backfire, urging them to instead focus squarely on the procedural objections that have already united Republicans.
“The point here is to avoid conviction. It’s not a great moment for trying to score political points,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who has criticized the House’s case for convicting Trump. “And I don’t think litigating the election is a winning strategy. I think it’s got a lower percentage of success than a Hail Mary in the Super Bowl.”
Last week, 45 out of 50 GOP senators voted in favor of a procedural motion arguing that it was unconstitutional for the Senate to hold an impeachment trial for a former president because that individual is already out of office. Cramer said Trump’s lawyers should treat that vote as a victory, noting that “you already have a winning score on the constitutional message.”
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