The Trump administration deserves credit for Operation Warp Speed, the program that helped to fund the vaccines, and the private sector deserves credit for the miraculous speed and effectiveness with which it developed the vaccines. But, for the most part, President Donald Trump left the rollout to the states. Last March, Ron Klain, now Biden’s chief of staff, observed that the Trump administration was approaching the pandemic, a massive national crisis, as if the country were still living “under the Articles of Confederation.”
Trump did this for two reasons. First, it was clear the pandemic was going to create big problems, and he didn’t want to bear responsibility for them. The sentiment was: “Let the governors own the lockdowns. We will own the recovery.” Second, Republicans have for years denigrated the federal government, arguing that it was incompetent and dysfunctional, that Washington was corrupt and that the private sector could handle everything better. Trump’s initial solution to the pandemic was to line up a bunch of private companies and announce that they would quickly set up websites and testing centers to cover the population. Little of that actually happened.
Biden came into office intent on reversing Trump’s approach. He owned the crisis, releasing a 200-page national strategy that outlined, for example, exactly how the government would use its powers and resources to ramp up vaccinations. That included ordering millions more vaccines; using the Defense Production Act to ensure that additional production could happen fast; enlisting the armed forces, National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to support vaccination sites; and shipping vaccines directly to pharmacies, thus creating another network of vaccination centers across the country.
The result: a massive ramp-up of the supply, production and administration of the vaccines. With some luck, the United States could soon be vaccinating 3 million people a day.
Government is hard. American government is harder still. It’s a political system designed to prevent tyranny, not facilitate speedy action. Power is checked, divided and shared. Making it work takes energy, ingenuity and, above all, a belief in government. Biden clearly learned from his experience running the stimulus program as President Barack Obama’s vice president. Klain, who coordinated the response to Ebola in 2014-2015, is impressively focused on execution. Biden’s covid-19 coordinator, Jeffrey Zients, is a talented executive who has excelled in the private and public sectors. (He may be best remembered for fixing the Obamacare website.)
A senior White House official told me, “You have to work every day at all the details, grind the stuff out, persuade, cajole and force everyone to get on the same page. The federal government has amazing people working within it — FEMA, for example, has some real miracle workers — but they have to be led and managed. It can be done. The answer is not that a consulting group can do this better. For people like us who believe in government, task number one is to make government work.”
The contrast with Trump is easy to draw, because Trump didn’t really view his job as diligently administering the federal bureaucracy. For him, the presidency was a reality television show and politics was a series of symbolic acts. But there is a broader view of the federal government that grew out of the Vietnam War, Watergate and some of the excesses of the Great Society programs, one that President Ronald Reagan gave voice to when he said in his first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Biden can show us that Reagan was wrong. It was the American government that put a man on the moon and created the Internet. And in today’s world, there are crucial challenges that only government, well led and administered, can solve.