I was not as impressed as others by the president’s speech Thursday in the Capitol. I wanted him to take on a kind of broad-gauged gravity that spoke of the attack of 1/6/21 in a way that didn’t make Trump supporters and many Republicans lean away from the first moments but start to lean forward, however reluctantly, even painfully, knowing that what they were hearing was wisdom.
A lot of people have a lot of admitting to do, most spectacularly Republican lawmakers on the Hill, but you’re not likely to win admission by a great public damning, and asserting in the most heightened language, on an anniversary. Wisdom, and a kind of high modesty that doesn’t seek to win the moment, was what was needed.
There’s too much wanting to win the moment in politics. It never adds up and doesn’t help you win the war. Here I’ll be Irish: A little sweetness can elicit a lot of guilt.
Anyway President Biden won the moment Thursday but I think to little effect.
What I think will be much more important in the excavation of what happened on 1/6/21—and who was behind it—is the January 6 Committee, set to continue hearings in the early spring. There are reports they may be televised in prime time. If they’ve got the goods, and I hope they do. Only stark facts, not words, will break down the walls of denial that need to be broken.
But that isn’t the subject of this column, which is on another crisis. We have reached the Gobsmack Point in the American part of the pandemic. The current moment is much like 20 months ago. It is no triumph of government that this is so. Covid tests are too few and hard to come by. We are all at-home epidemiologists again, up nights studying online data, then from China and Italy, now from South Africa and London. Friends bring each other home tests and debate whether the nose swab should really be used on the throat.
Public-health advisories are confusing and contradictory and their spirit seems not to be “We must fully inform the people” but “We have to say something, let’s try this.” All public-health pronouncements now feel like propaganda.
The president spoke to the nation about Omicron on Tuesday, but that speech was thin, reheated gruel.
“Get vaccinated. Get boosted. There’s plenty of booster shots. Wear a mask while you’re in public. . . . We have booster shots for the whole nation, OK? . . . There is no excuse—no excuse—for anyone being unvaccinated. This continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
On testing: “I know this remains frustrating, believe me it’s frustrating to me, but we’re making improvements. . . . Google—excuse me—‘Covid test near me’ on Google to find the nearest site where you can get a test most often and free.”
I did this. The page that came up was cluttered with the propaganda we’ve all grown used to—the first words you see are “COVID-19 tests are available at no cost nationwide at health centers and select pharmacies.” No admission of any difficulties. The first link offered for testing was a private company that barked in its automated message that walk-ins cannot be guaranteed service, and you cannot come if you are showing signs or symptoms of Covid or have experienced them in the past 10 days. The earliest test offered was in seven days. Omicron seems often to last about seven days.
Of rapid tests, the president said “drugstores and online websites are restocking.” Of course they are, and they’ll probably be fully stocked by the time the wave passes.
It all seemed so old, especially when the virus itself has taken such a dramatic turn, a new variant spreading faster than ever, yet weaker than ever. How does herd immunity figure in here, what does it mean at this point, how is it defined? I hoped to hear.
This may be the time to stop picking at the scab that is the vaccination wars. At a certain point you cannot patronize and scold people into changing their minds. Persuade but don’t bark and accuse. From the beginning the government should have sent pro- and anti-vaxxers out all over to debate each other—the pro-vaccine argument would have won. I still don’t understand why humor and warmth were never used in government vaccination campaigns, only bland and incessant hectoring from doctors in white jackets telling you it’s safe, it’s right, do it. Which came across as mere and heavily subsidized propaganda.
The president often sounds to me like a man trying to perceive what the public wants and deliver it, which in fairness is what most politicians do. But he and his people are not necessarily good perceivers. On the pandemic, he isn’t sure if they want reassurance or an acting out of shared indignation or a stirring Churchillian vow—“I’m gonna shut down the virus, not the country,” he said during the 2020 campaign. But people know when you’re telling them what you think they want to hear, and they experience it as talking down to them. They wouldn’t mind that so much if they thought the politician talking down was their intellectual or ethical superior, but they don’t often get to feel that way.
A problem for the president is that when he tries to convey resolution or strength he often takes on tics—a lowered voice, a whispering into the mic, an overenunciation—that in his political youth were charming, but in old age are less so. I always thought in the 2020 campaign that his age was an unacknowledged benefit: the assumption was he must be moderate, old people are, what else is the point of being old? As he came in his first year to seem less moderate his age became less a benefit.
You know what would move the needle in terms of his pandemic leadership? “I believe schools should remain open,” he said Tuesday, and that’s nice but not enough. The biggest single thing he could say to convince American parents that he was on their side, being serious and trying to end this pandemic well is to put himself and his party in some jeopardy by finally, late in the game, going forcefully against the most reactionary force in American public life, the teachers unions. The selfish, uncaring attitude they weren’t ashamed to show regarding the closing of schools, their fantasies about how uniquely vulnerable they themselves now are, and their pleasure in flexing political muscle—they covered themselves in shame the past two years. Their relationship with parents won’t recover for a long time, if ever.
If the president firmly and uncompromisingly stood up for Chicago, where the teachers this week refused to work, it would be some kind of moment. It would startle the nation’s parents into real appreciation: Someone is helping. And in the end and in time the unions would have to forgive him; they don’t really have another party to go to.
I don’t suppose that will ever happen. And too bad, because that really would move the needle and help the public much more than the furrowed brow and quivering voice and the acting out of . . . whatever.
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