Biden's new goal: "Managing expectations"

I wanted to draw your attention to a new analysis of the Biden administration that was put together by Jonathan Lemire and Zeke Miller at the Associated Press because it seems to reveal some of the thinking going on inside Joe Biden’s White House, though perhaps unintentionally. At first glance, it comes off as something of a puff piece, talking about the tremendous challenge the pandemic presents to Biden’s administration and the goals being set. They note the President’s initial goals for vaccinations (which have changed repeatedly) as well his reluctance to talk about when Americans can expect all of the mandates to end, allowing life to return to “normal.” Overall, what the analysis concludes is that Joe Biden is more worried about “managing expectations” than any lofty goals, ensuring that he won’t fall short on any perceived promises.

Biden’s overarching strategy thus far has been to under-promise and over-deliver, a proven political strategy that comes with reminders that Americans need to remain vigilant as more contagious variants of the virus take hold.

In his first days in office, Biden had promised enough vaccine for all adults by the end of summer. He moved the timetable up to the end of July through additional purchases of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This past weekend’s approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, combined with a new production deal with Merck and manufacturing improvements for the existing shots, gave Biden confidence Tuesday to set May as the new milestone.

Yet even as he holds up the vaccinations as a promising step toward normalcy, Biden has been loath to set a clear timetable.

That phrase about under-promising and over-delivering really rings true from what we’ve seen thus far. But should that really be seen as an admirable quality? Another, perhaps less charitable way to put it would be to say that if you set the bar low enough, you won’t fail to pass it. In terms of what we’ve been told to expect in terms of managing the pandemic, the bar is pretty much on the floor.

The analysis reminds us that Biden set an initial goal of 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days. But when he set that goal there were already two vaccines in production with a third one well on its way through trials. Pfizer and Moderna were both predicting that their output would ramp up quickly, and even without the J&J vaccine, they are already set to easily surpass that goal. What has Biden personally done to increase the pace of vaccinations? Not much beyond making a couple of speeches. The vaccinations are being handled at the state and municipal levels and it’s the pharmaceutical manufacturers who are determining how many are shipped out each day.

As far as that “return to normalcy” goes, Joe Biden really hasn’t even set a bar. Last week he said “maybe Christmas” and on Tuesday he modified that to “possibly early 2022.” Meanwhile, the Governor of Texas has pulled out all the stops and said the state is fully opening for business and ending all state mask mandates. That may turn out to be kind of risky, but it’s also what people wanted to hear. Biden flatly admitted what he was doing on Tuesday when he said, “I’ve been cautioned not to give an answer to that because we don’t know for sure.”

Really? Who cautioned him in this fashion? That’s a political answer, not a policy-based one. You were elected to lead the country, not protect your own record like some sort of hothouse flower.

The AP report describes Biden’s tactics as being intended to “set modest expectations and then beat them.” I don’t know if they are saying that in an approving fashion, but it certainly doesn’t come off that way. Americans are used to facing challenges by setting bold goals and working to achieve them. Say what you will about Donald Trump’s success record, but he made bold predictions and then at least tried to meet those goals. In the case of the development of the vaccines, he set up Operation Warp Speed and said we would have vaccines by the end of the year. He was called a liar by fact-checkers for that claim, but he turned out to be right. When it comes to the border wall, that was a case where he couldn’t meet his own goals, but people saw he was trying every trick in the book to make it happen.

Now, with the turn of a single election cycle, we’ve entered the era of “managed expectations.” You’ll excuse me if I’m left feeling a bit underwhelmed.