Biden: If scientists told me we needed to shut down the country to slow the virus, I'd shut it down

A baaaaad answer in terms of policy. I thought this guy had already had his “come to Jesus” moment on the role of federalism in managing the pandemic. A few months ago he proposed a national mask mandate and suggested that he’d use his executive authority to make it happen. Uh, what executive authority? The president doesn’t make the rules about how America manages a deadly contagion. The 50 governors do. He could encourage a mask mandate; he could maybe even convince Congress to condition federal funding to states on their governor’s willingness to impose a mandate. But a true national mask mandate? Please. How would you even enforce it?

Biden seemed to learn that lesson, though. More recently when he called for a mask mandate, he acknowledged that America’s governors would have ultimate authority.

Now he’s back to insisting that he’d order a national lockdown if, I guess, Tony Fauci and Debbie Birx told him it was a good idea. Wha’ happened?

Governors are having a hard enough time getting locals to comply with their own lockdown orders. Imagine the degree of resistance if the order to close businesses came from far-flung Washington. How many people in a rural red state where spread is low would give it a second thought?

Bad policy. But the politics of this answer are less bad. The idea of a national lockdown engineered by egghead scientists seems almost tailor-made to piss off populist Trump voters but it’s less unpopular with the rest of the electorate. An NPR poll taken at the end of last month found 59 percent said they’d support a two-week national lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. An AP poll taken a few weeks earlier saw nearly half of respondents say they favor requiring Americans to remain in their homes apart from essential trips. The sort of voter whom Biden’s aiming for wouldn’t rule out a proposal like this on the merits as instantly as a rank-and-file Republican would.

We also shouldn’t overthink what casual voters will take away from the clip. They’re not going to sit there trying to puzzle out which constitutional provisional grants President Sleepy Joe the authority to lock down the country. The takeaway will be “stopping the pandemic is this guy’s highest priority,” and that’s a popular position. I’ve blogged a lot of polls about COVID over the past five months and I can’t remember a single one in which people, when asked to choose, favored reopening to get the economy going over controlling the virus. Literally every last survey I’ve seen has a solid majority preferring the latter over the former. That’s the group Biden’s courting with this answer. He’s seizing an opportunity to say in a dramatic — and dubious — way that he’ll listen to the scientists and go the extra mile to get the virus under control, even if unprecedented control measures are required. Safety first.

By giving that answer, he’s drawing a contrast with you-know-who. And he’s probably hoping that you-know-who will feel baited by this and rush to claim the minority position that reopening businesses and schools is better for the country whatever it might mean in terms of community spread. As a meta-message, this is Biden signaling in neon lights, “I’ll do things differently on COVID than Trump did.” Considering that his handling of the pandemic is Trump’s biggest electoral liability, that’s not a bad meta-message to have.

Exit question: How many scientists are even proposing a national lockdown? There aresome, but I don’t think Fauci or Birx has ever proposed it. Their attitude has always been that decisions need to be made locally, based on how severe the spread is in a particular city or state.