If he should take office next year, Biden would be forced to multitask on an extreme level, not only grappling with how to restore some degree of normalcy whenever required social distancing ends, but also handling the economic and health aftereffects that are sure to linger long after the immediate crisis abates. Terrell McSweeny, who was Biden’s chief domestic-policy adviser at the time, recalls that after the Recovery Act’s initial passage, Obama had many other pressing issues on his agenda, including his overhaul of the health-insurance system, so he relied on his vice president. This time around, Biden would have to find a Biden of his own. “What Biden was able to do was take on these incredibly wide-ranging investments and set of programs across the board,” McSweeny said, “and keep all of that in process with a relatively small staff coordinating deeply—and using his ability at the top of government to constantly keep the pressure on.”

Perhaps the biggest difference from a decade ago is the sheer scale of the current problem. “I think the idea that we get the all-clear sign from the medical community and the economy is fine at that point is really misguided,” Bernstein said. He cited forecasts that unemployment could be at 15 percent by this fall, more than 8 percent in January, and still well over 6 percent by the fourth quarter of 2021. The Great Recession of 2008 upended the economy, sparked by the housing bubble and resulting turmoil in financial markets. This crisis has a different, more deadly cause and is already proving more far-reaching.

Complicating Biden’s task further is an even more toxic partisan political divide in Washington than existed a decade ago. House Democrats are in a standoff with Senate Republicans over what next steps to take, if any, following the just-passed $2 trillion coronavirus-relief plan.