Who deserves credit? Biden leans into pandemic politics

President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — In President Joe Biden’s war against the coronavirus, former President Donald Trump hardly exists.

The Democratic president ignored Trump in his first prime-time address to the nation, aside from a brief indirect jab. It was the same when Biden kicked off a national tour in Pennsylvania on Tuesday to promote the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Now, as his administration is on the cusp of delivering on his promise of administering 100 million doses of vaccine in his first 100 days, Biden is in no rush to share the credit.

The truth is that both Biden and Trump deserve some credit, though Biden stands to benefit from being in power during the nation’s emergence from the pandemic. In the president’s telling, the United States’ surging vaccination rate, economic recovery and the hope slowly spreading across the nation belong to him and his party alone.

On Thursday afternoon, Biden took an early victory lap on reaching the vaccination milestone more than a month before he promised, saying the 100 millionth dose would be administered Friday — his 59th day in office.

“One headline simply put it: ‘It won’t be easy.’ Well it wasn’t,” Biden said, taking credit for putting the federal government on a “war footing” after he took office.

The president’s approach represents a determination to shape how voters — and history — will remember the story of America’s comeback from the worst health and economic crises in generations. In the short term, the debate will help decide whether Democrats will continue to control Congress after next year’s midterm elections. And in the longer term, each president’s legacy is at stake.

For now, the fight is framed by conflicting realities.

On the Democratic side, Biden and his allies see a nation still desperate for government intervention. They point to more than 9 million jobs still lost, thousands of Americans still dying of the coronavirus every week, and state and local leaders in both parties seeking help.

Enter Biden’s relief package, which public polling shows has broad support. The package provides checks and tax breaks directly to Americans and will add money to the pandemic fight, as well as help state and municipal governments close budget shortfalls.

On the other side, Republicans largely believe that most Americans are doing just fine after the GOP — under Trump’s leadership — put the country on a path to recovery before Democrats won the White House and both chambers of Congress in January. They note that hundreds of billions of dollars remain unspent from last year’s rescue packages.

In an interview, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey stopped short of endorsing the call by his Republican Senate colleague Rick Scott of Florida for states to return billions of dollars allocated in Biden’s pandemic-relief plan, which includes $1,400 checks for most Americans. But Toomey described the Democrat-backed package, which polling suggests is overwhelmingly popular, as “an embarrassment.”

“We certainly didn’t need it right now,” the Pennsylvania Republican said of Biden’s American Rescue Plan. “I have heard from a lot of people receiving the check saying they didn’t need it.”

Toomey also mocked Biden’s attempts to take credit for the pandemic progress, saying, “I suppose roosters take credit for the sunshine sometimes.”

Trump’s response to the virus last year was wildly inconsistent and divisive, but it’s undeniable that the former president’s push for vaccine production, known as Operation Warp Speed, gave Biden something to build on as soon as he took over.

In his early days in the White House, Biden’s team made headlines as they said publicly that he had inherited no plan to combat the pandemic. The White House has since backed off that argument, however, because it’s not technically accurate.

The Biden administration inherited two effective vaccines, with others in the pipeline. And even a much-touted program to distribute vaccines through retail pharmacies has its roots in the last administration.

Even so, since taking over, Biden has overseen a dramatic increase in vaccine distribution and played a more active role in giving states consistent pandemic-related guidance. Late last week, for example, the new president announced that all Americans would be eligible for a vaccine by May 1, a directive meant to help cut through the patchwork of conflicting eligibility requirements across the country.

Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison charged that Trump played down the seriousness of the coronavirus for months, leaving states on their own to address the historic health and economic crises.

“Joe Biden has come in to clean it up, to clean up the mess,” Harrison told The Associated Press. “I have no room for giving Donald Trump any credit. This is a man who couldn’t even say, ‘You need to wear a mask.’ And right now, you see the people who are resisting the most are people who voted for him, in terms of taking the vaccine.”

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 42% of Republicans say they probably or definitely will not get the shot, compared with 17% of Democrats.

For all the GOP griping, Trump has not helped position himself as an effective leader in public health.

The former president largely ignored the pandemic — and the success of the vaccine development — in his final months in office, consumed instead by spreading false claims of election fraud.

Trump’s White House aides all but begged him to focus on selling the promising vaccines in the weeks after the November election, believing he would be able to take credit for their development and rollout. But Trump rejected an aggressive plan to promote the vaccines that his team had planned.

Trump is the only living president who did not appear in a public service announcement released last week encouraging all Americans to get the vaccine. He addressed the issue briefly during a Tuesday interview on Fox News, acknowledging that a lot of his supporters are reluctant to be vaccinated.

“I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it. And a lot of those people voted for me, frankly,” Trump said. “But you know, again, we have our freedoms, and we have to live by that, and I agree with that, also. But it’s a great vaccine. It’s a safe vaccine. And it’s something that works.”

Privately, some Biden aides are surprised that Trump hasn’t been more active in trying to sell the vaccines developed on his watch to help rehabilitate his legacy. It is an oversight they are not going out of their way to correct.

While publicly welcoming Trump’s engagement on the vaccines, the White House is content to have Trump recede from the spotlight. Biden has moved to turn the page on “the former guy,” rarely uttering Trump’s name in public since his inauguration — for good or ill.

White House officials note that Biden has taken pains to credit researchers and scientists who developed the technologies used in the three approved COVID-19 vaccines, though he has not extended that courtesy to the Republican administration that injected billions into their work over the last year.

While Trump is largely absent from the debate, the Republican National Committee hopes to undercut Biden’s message by flooding local media outlets with Republican critics in key states.

RNC talking points distributed to surrogates say that “just 1 percent” of the rescue package (which would be roughly $20 billion) will go to vaccine distribution. But the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost $93 billion in the legislation is focused on vaccine distribution and related public health measures.

The Republican talking points ignore the $1,400 checks for most Americans that carry a total price tag of $422 billion.

The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has launched a modest national advertising campaign that declares, “Help is here,” and related billboards attacking Republicans in several states for opposing “$1,400 checks & shots in arms.”

Harrison, the DNC chair, vowed that Democrats would not let voters forget Republican obstruction and Trump’s lack of leadership when the nation needed help the most.

“We are going to be a dog with a bone on this particular issue,” he said. “Joe Biden and the Democrats, they did it alone.”