Biden COVID response previews the rest of his term: Details and empathy, hold the bravado

After an intense six-month tour of duty in the White House working on the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response, I’ve learned a lot about how President Joe Biden’s term is likely to unfold. In the way he has managed this crisis, and the contrast to details emerging now on former President Donald Trump’s pandemic approach, there are many clues to how he will handle foreign and domestic policy.

The Biden team has been guided by his strong sense of personal accountability and integrity. Whatever the circumstance, we anchored ourselves to public commitments – without excuse. If we beat them, as we did with our goal of delivering 100 million shots in 100 days, we raised the goal. Even when surprise storms shut down vaccine deliveries and distribution sites, we remained publicly accountable for rapidly vaccinating the country, reporting on each delay and when it would be made up.

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Being willing to be publicly accountable matters. We used every tool in our arsenal to meet these goals, from the Defense Production Act to keep factories running, calling in the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up vaccination centers to creating a tax break so employers could give people time off to get vaccinated.

Pointing fingers and blaming states 

In contrast, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic was a master class in abdicating responsibility and finger-pointing. As Trump son-in-law and former White House adviser Jared Kushner told me and as I describe in my new book, “Preventable,” Trump’s express aim was to get credit for opening the country but blame the states for when things would go wrong.

Biden also set a tone as a “just get it done” president who is averse to hype. His pandemic response has been clear eyed, detailed and results oriented. In his first months, the focus was on expanding access to vaccines, which were in short supply, and on shoring up production, vaccine locations and vaccinators.

Cover of "Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response," by Andy Slavitt, publishing June 15, 2021. (Photo: St. Martin's Press)

The public was anxious and unsettled in the face of a significant vaccine shortage we inherited, and it would have been tempting for any politician to provide false assurances. Biden didn’t. Even as we accelerated the timeline for vaccinating the public, Biden only made promises he could keep, and he exceeded every one of them. As I lay out in my book, he instructed us privately to get Americans the information they needed, not focus on how to make him look good.

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Trump put on grand press conferences in which he continually assured the public that the pandemic was days from ending, hocked suspect miracle cures and told the public that there was nothing to worry about. He saw everything as a reflection on him. But at each turn, his pronouncements were quickly disproven and inevitably followed by waves of new cases and deaths – even as he persuaded many of his supporters to let their guard down. 

Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 Response Team, talks about his son's long-haul COVID at a White House briefing on Jan. 27, 2021. (Photo: White House via AP)

Perhaps the most telling early hallmark of Biden’s presidency is that he views challenges through a lens of empathy. He has continually placed focus on seeing issues through the eyes of working people struggling to stay afloat, and of those communities too long ignored. Empathy, compassion and justice went into decisions such as where to locate vaccination sites to make sure to reach communities of color and rural areas, and arranging child care and free rides so single parents could get vaccinated. After four years of intolerance and crudeness, Biden’s lexicon is full of a new bold empathy: He talks of “states, tribes and territories,” of “health equity,” of difficult conversations around the dining table.

Biden replaced a president who seemed entirely indifferent to the suffering of millions in communities around the country during the pandemic. Trump’s COVID-19 response reflected the relative ease with which people who could safely isolate experienced the pandemic (even though he didn’t safely isolate when he was ill).

Short on flash and long on details

As “Preventable” lays out, Trump required meatpacking plants to stay open even in the midst of significant outbreaks. Nurses ran out of protective masks, but Trump made sure we never ran out of Big Macs. Farm laborers, the Navajo nation, the Rio Grande Valley, people experiencing homelessness and prison inmates experienced the worst of the pandemic without response or even acknowledgement from Trump.

Given how much Trump quieted dissent, the stories behind his actions are just now emerging. And they show the many ways Trump denied reality, scapegoated dissenters and exploited the country’s divisions. But if his aim was to avoid political accountability, as Kushner suggested, in the end, he failed.

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For Biden, politics is about results and impact on real people, not bravado. There are seminal issues we face where this will come in especially handy: overseeing an economic recovery that reaches everyone, putting in place a climate policy that creates both a better future and new jobs today, and global competition with China that requires trusted collaboration with partners around the world.

Americans can expect from Joe Biden a White House short on flash and long on things we don’t normally see in politicians – accountability, detailed execution, humility and a deep commitment to justice. Just in time for the many challenges we face.

Andy Slavitt (@ASlavitt) was President Joe Biden’s White House senior adviser for COVID response until this month and ran the Affordable Care Act and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from 2015 to 2017 for President Barack Obama. His new book is “Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response.” 

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