It's the virus, stupid

To regain the political initiative, the Democrats have to pivot back to COVID. President Biden has tried to do that by calling for a wider implementation of vaccine mandates among other things. But he’s frequently stumbled, most notably in the confusing and contradictory rollout of a plan for booster shots. And there are plenty of areas where the administration’s response has been almost inert. The United States still lacks the kind of cheap rapid COVID testing that is widely available in other countries — even though the kits are sometimes manufactured in the U.S.A. The obstacles have always been entirely bureaucratic rather than technological, and the fact that they’re still in place nine months after Biden’s inauguration is a testament to the fact that the administration came into office thinking the war on COVID was largely won.

Politically, there is no substitute for victory. Victory, though, also needs to be more clearly defined. COVID is not going to be eradicated; it’s going to become endemic. That doesn’t mean we should be fatalistic; on the contrary, fatalism will just lead to excess fatalities. It means we have to take the aggressive steps necessary to make it possible to live with the disease without mass death, including getting more adults vaccinated and making cheap tests widely available to help keep COVID out of the most vulnerable populations and situations. But it also means pushing back against the pervasive anxiety that so many who do take the virus seriously are prone to and that could hamper a return to a full and normal life.

COVID is actually an issue tailor-made for the vigorous centrism that Biden has often personified — it is, first and foremost, a test of whether government can be nimble and effective in working for the common good. Winning the war against COVID, though, will require actual vigor. And without a vigorous effort now, the Democrats will lack the political capital necessary to move their other initiatives forward.