Media discovers: Presidenting in a pandemic is unexpectedly difficult

Neither CNN nor Politico are incorrect in that approach, but the timing of their epiphanies is certainly … curious. For instance, after a full year of assigning personal responsibility for every COVID-19 development to Donald Trump, Politico suddenly discovered that presidents don’t have total control of pandemic management three weeks into Joe Biden’s term:


The irony of their headline about Biden’s voyage of discovery no doubt eluded Politico’s social-media editors. Biden’s not the only one discovering federalism and the limits of executive power, it seems. The actual piece makes those limits its lead:

President Joe Biden’s presidency hinges in large part on his success in handling the pandemic. But nearly a month into power, he’s beginning to discover just how much of that task is out of his control.

The White House is locked in a delicate dance with governors over reopening schools, distributing Covid shots and enforcing mask mandates, with Biden’s team wary of alienating key state leaders even as it takes stock of the lurching response to the crisis. Governors, in turn, are starting to push back on the first federal efforts to pressure them. …

Yet the federal government’s charm offensive threatens to bog down Biden’s early efforts to rein in the virus and claim political credit for restoring a sense of normalcy.

The White House has resisted ordering states to let teachers jump the vaccine line, even as it struggles to convince educators to return to school. Biden officials have also held off on criticizing certain governors for easing mask mandates and restrictions on indoor gathering, despite fears that emerging, more contagious Covid-19 variants could fuel a new surge.

And when it comes to shipping out vaccines, the administration is trying to balance efforts to reach nursing homes and communities of color with governors’ complaints that they’re quickly running through their weekly allocations of shots.


Just a few weeks ago, all of those issues got painted by the national media as reflecting entirely on the president. Funny how well federalism is being understood just a month into the new administration.

CNN’s coverage also reflects a newfound wisdom on limits. In an analysis of the Biden team’s pandemic handling this morning headlined “Biden team finds promises hard to make — let alone keep,” CNN does correctly point out that this team has a better grasp on expectation setting than Biden’s predecessor. However, even while pointing out that Biden set expectations at or lower than Trump’s actual performance, they largely give Biden a pass over the crisis that defies the easy solutions that Biden was promising right up until he took office:

Speaking on television last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted April would be “open season” for receiving the coronavirus vaccine, welcome news for a nation entering its second year under pandemic-forced lockdowns and ever-lingering fear of disease.

“Virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated,” Fauci said optimistically.

A week later, the timeline had moved back at least one month — possibly two — laying bare the risks for President Joe Biden and his administration in making precise promises amid a crisis that defies easy solutions or clean answers.

On key questions — such as when every American who wants a vaccine can get one, when all students can return to classrooms and when life can gain a semblance of normalcy — Biden has either demurred or offered only a partial projection, admitting he does not want to over-commit and later be held to blame. That comes in stark contrast to his predecessor, who began predicting the end of the crisis practically as soon as it started.


Ahem. Biden repeatedly promised to have schools fully open by April, claimed that the Trump administration had no logistical plan (and no vaccine), and then set a target vaccination rate that the Trump team was already meeting. Remember when Biden insisted he had a plan to defeat COVID-19? To date, we still have not seen any comprehensive policies in place that didn’t originate in the Trump White House.

All of this looks like some convenient expectation-lowering by the media, not just the White House. This is what narrative-building looks like, and we can expect to see more of this in the weeks ahead to cover for Biden’s failures as they unfold.

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