WASHINGTON — There are two immediate challenges facing the next president — and as I write this, it’s not clear if it is President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden — and both are related to the COVID-19 pandemic shaping this unprecedented election.
The first is to find a way for Congress to pass another stimulus bill to rescue the coronavirus-ravaged economy, with gridlocked lawmakers and the Trump White House not able to strike a pre-election deal.
The second is to convince the public that if vaccines are rushed to the market — sprinting through federal approvals — the drugs are safe to use, given the pressure Trump has been putting on government officials.
Trump, trying to downplay the spike in cases that threatened him winning a second term, has been saying for weeks that a coronavirus pandemic vaccine ready for mass distribution across the U.S. will appear “momentarily.”
It’s not true. No drug is ready to be shipped “momentarily,” even with a generous, expansive definition of the word.
Of the notable items in this election cycle with the norm-busting Trump at the helm — who just makes things up — has been his campaign within his campaign to erode confidence in career scientists who don’t agree with his rosy pandemic forecasts and drug development timelines and mocking of people who wear masks.
At a recent rally, his threat to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s popular, leading infectious-disease expert, prompted calls from the crowd to “Fire Fauci.”
Trump — who will be president at least until Jan. 20, 2021 — may well sack Facuci and other medical officials in the weeks ahead, but those kind of moves will not inspire consumer confidence to take a vaccine if people don’t believe it will work. Or worse, that an unproven drug will make them sick.
Biden, who tried to make his third presidential bid a referendum on Trump’s handling of the pandemic, promised to “hire Fauci” if he wins the White House.
According to a national exit poll survey conducted for CNN, ABC News, CBS News and NBC News, combining interviews with voters who cast ballots on Tuesday, earlier and by mail, 34% said the economy was the most important voting issue followed by 21% who said racial inequality and 18% who cited the pandemic.
Crime and safety — one of Trump’s major reelection arguments — and health care policy — a centerpiece of Biden’s bid — each found only 11% of respondents saying those issues were critical.
What’s interesting is this: When asked “which is more important to do now,” 52% said containing the coronavirus, while 42% said rebuilding the economy should be a priority. The exit poll found 48% said the U.S. efforts to contain the disease are going “well” with 51% replying “badly.”
Against that backdrop, it’s clear what the priorities need to be, especially since the economic rebound is so tied to getting the pandemic under control.
When lawmakers return to Congress later this month, it will be for a lame-duck session.
The House will stay under Democratic control. As I write this, it’s not clear yet if the Democrats flipped the Senate.
There are four scenarios: Biden wins, and the Senate stays Republican. Biden wins, but the Democrats take the Senate. Trump wins, and the Democrats flip the Senate. Or Trump wins, and the GOP keeps the Senate.
A President-elect Biden could start negotiating with Senate Republicans in the lame duck.
A defeated Trump will be even more of a wildcard than he is now, so I’m not predicting he would sign an expansive bill on his way out, especially if it includes relief for his despised Democratic-run cities and states.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in a call with reporters after winning re-election, said getting a COVID bill through Congress in the coming weeks depends on whether Trump, “if he doesn’t win the election, still has an interest in the issues. I think he might.”