“I think we have to level-set expectations,” said Barack Obama’s director of the Centers for Disease Control, Tom Frieden, in a recent call with reporters. The pandemic, he warned, is about to get worse, and the new administration is utterly hamstrung by the wreckage the last administration left in its wake.
“What we’re inheriting from the Trump administration is so much worse than we could have imagined,” President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 point man, Jeff Zients, added. The new administration just doesn’t have the tools to effectively distribute and monitor the supplies of coronavirus vaccines.
“There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch,” said one unnamed source. The Biden White House is starting from “square one,” said another, because of the “complete incompetence” of the Trump administration. Those unattributed quotes were sufficient to justify CNN’s assertion that Joe Biden had inherited a “nonexistent coronavirus vaccine distribution plan.”
Expectations are well and truly set, and they’re unimpressive. Mission accomplished, Tom Frieden. It would take a miraculous feat of bureaucratic competence to avert an even greater disaster than the one we’ve all endured over the last year. Right?
It doesn’t take much imagination to be open to the possibility that the Trump administration dropped the ball on pandemic management, particularly during the tumultuous transition period. Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar himself announced last week that the administration distributed all available vaccines to the states, depleting the federal government’s reserve and lending credence to some of the Biden administration’s frustrations.
But that revelation also exposes the hollowness of Biden officials’ claims that there is no COVID mitigation plan whatsoever to “rework,” and so everything must be built “from scratch.” These are easily refutable claims (which, for some odd reason, these and other journalistic outlets declined to refute). And they serve only to reinforce a narrative favorable to the new White House.
Look: It’s right here in black and white, published for the world to see in the early autumn of 2020 in anticipation of the FDA’s emergency approval of COVID-19 vaccines. Given the number of unknowns at the time—when approval would be forthcoming, how many doses would be available, manufacturing timelines, and the logistical challenges associated with the preservation and transportation of doses—the Trump administration emphasized flexibility and the discretion of the states to design their own distribution models.
But that doesn’t mean the Trump White House took an entirely hands-off approach. The administration did, in fact, craft “jurisdiction-specific plans” that serve as “models for other jurisdictions.” Nor did the Trump White House dismiss the need for a “centralized distribution” network to give the federal government control over vaccine allocation and tracking. The Trump White House even established a phased distribution schedule “with the goal of maximizing vaccine acceptance and public health protection while minimizing waste and inefficiency.”
But the pandemic is a rapidly evolving crisis, and no plan can survive for long in such an environment. So the Trump administration revised it on several occasions, even as late as the last president’s final week in office. Those changes involved calling on states to expand the eligible population to include everyone aged 65 or older and those with preexisting conditions—not just frontline health-care workers and long-term-care facility residents. The last White House also sought to create incentives for rapid vaccine distribution by expanding access to the serum based on the states’ pace of distribution.
As of this writing, 17.2 million doses have been administered in the United States since December 14, with the average daily inoculations now approaching 1 million. That didn’t happen entropically; it resulted from a months-long campaign involving almost every department within the executive branch in coordination with a variety of private enterprises. In raw terms, not adjusted for population, the U.S. outpaces every other nation in the number of single-dose vaccinations delivered so far.
The Trump administration’s plan is not immune from criticism. No administration can be expected to have a perfect grasp of an emergency as fluid as a pandemic. The Biden administration’s approach will have its flaws, too. What you cannot say in good faith is that the Trump administration’s plan did not exist. And yet, with an assist from a complacent Fourth Estate, that is the narrative Biden’s officials have pursued. But why?
The Biden administration is lowering the bar for success. If officials need an excuse to explain away their failures, they have a handy scapegoat. And failure is all but baked into their assumptions. As others have noted, if Joe Biden meets his pledge to deliver 100 million shots in his first 100 days, it would require the vaccine distribution rate to stagnate at its current pace for the foreseeable future. Preparing the public for that possibility is just best practice. And if the Biden administration is successful in its efforts to pursue and achieve rapid herd immunity, the narrative will allow them to claim sole credit for the achievement.
“I would be more inclined to measure the expectations a little bit more,” Brookings Institution fellow and Obama administration alum Kavita Patel recently confessed, “start with a shorter-term goal and declare success so that we can restore faith in the process.” In other words, give the administration a good story to tell. And if they don’t have a good story to tell, give them a plausible villain outside the administration to blame.
It’s a cynical but savvy political strategy. Its only potential flaw is that it would fail in the absence of a compliant press corps. Fortunately for them, the Biden administration doesn’t have to worry about that.