President-elect Joe Biden and I apparently shared some sort of mind meld yesterday. At around the same time I was writing the words, “We are on the cusp of what could become the bleakest winter in living memory,” Mr. Biden was delivering his big press conference on the economy. “We’re going into a very dark winter,” he said at the outset of his remarks. “Things are going to get much tougher before they get easier.”
Well now. Am I dreaming, or is someone with an enormous microphone finally playing it straight on the awesome menace posed by COVID-19? Pardon me for my uncertainty, but with nine goddamn months, 11 million U.S. infections and almost 250,000 deaths in the rearview mirror, it’s a little shocking to see a major politician actually summon the courage to give the people the bad news they really, really need to hear.
It is almost impossible to explain how difficult a task Biden has before him. Thanks to the arsonist mayhem of Donald Trump, an enormous segment of the country is wired to dismiss everything Biden says. The Washington Post today carries a report on COVID patients in the Dakotas dying with the words, “This can’t be happening, it’s not real” on their lips.
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Trump did that. Undoing it, at this strange and perilous juncture, feels like it would be a feat akin to “Lazarus, come forth.” Finding a way to an economy that no longer disdains the labors of its least-paid, most exposed workers — in other words, a functional and resilient economy in the age of pandemics — against the headwinds of capitalism represents an equally daunting task.
Biden’s economic messaging day was divided into two segments, the first being a fairly unusual coming-together of labor leaders and corporate CEOs from the retail, tech and auto industries. Doing his best man-for-all-people routine, Biden said after the event that he’d told the CEOs, “I want you to know I’m a union guy, that’s not anti-business.” According to the president-elect, the CEOs just nodded.
“To state the obvious, we’re in a pretty dark hole right now,” said Biden at the beginning of the meeting, where he was joined by VP-elect Kamala Harris. “We face a dark winter ahead with COVID. You all have different perspectives on how we can best deal with the virus. And how we can make sure workers and small businesses stay safe, and we get back to rolling like we should. We all agree on common goals. We’re pretty much in lockstep. We agree that we can’t just build back, we need to build back better.”
Biden broadcast his desire for teamwork among the assembled, and not just because his economic plans are dead in the water without it. He shared that room yesterday with a group of serious heavyweights who brought along their own nigh-implacable agendas — capitalists and unionists who have literally seen and heard everything under the sun from every glad-handing politician who has ever come their way. He shared the room with the retail unionists specifically, whose people have faced down COVID for minimum wage and a break for lunch.
Time will tell if the president-elect brought them on board with his “COVID First” agenda. What they may have discussed away from the cameras is anyone’s guess, but again, we’ll know when we start seeing promises kept, or not. The CEOs, by and large, have gotten everything they’ve wanted from every president going back even to the age before Reagan. If COVID has taught us anything at all, it is that workers — union or otherwise — are the much ballyhooed “economy” our leaders spend so much time talking about. Whatever else the future may hold, greater protections for them are an absolute necessity.
At the Wilmington press conference, where he was again joined by Harris, Biden underscored the point he was making to the union leaders and CEOs: There is no economic plan, none, unless and until COVID-19 is successfully contained. It sounds so simple, and yet this very simplicity has been blown off by Trump, et al, for much of the year, which explains why we are currently trapped in a hurricane outbreak of new infections.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Biden at Wilmington, “but it can be done. And [the union and corporate leaders at the earlier meeting] all agreed that means rallying the country behind a national strategy with robust public health measures like mandatory masking, widely available testing with rapid results, scaled up production of life-saving treatments and therapeutics, and safe, equitable, and free distribution of the vaccine.”
Heady stuff after the folderol of the Trump administration, and grain-of-sand simple. After emphasizing what has to happen first with COVID, Biden went on to lay out his vision for what can happen after COVID:
Once we shut down the virus and deliver economic relief to workers and businesses, then we can start to build back better than before. We talked about how we have an opportunity to come out of this stronger, more resilient than we were when we went in and I wish you could have heard corporate leaders and the major labor leaders singing from the same hymnal here.
They talked about the need, the business community, talked about the need to invest in HBCUs and community colleges. Retrofitting 4 million new buildings, our old buildings, retrofitting them and making them new. Weatherizing 2 million homes. Building more climate resilient cities and towns.
He added that these investments will specifically happen in communities of color “so we can break the cycle where in good times they lag, and in a bad times, they get hit first and the hardest and in a recovery, it’s the toughest to bounce back.”
Because it was Joe Biden, the remarks yesterday lacked the rhetorical fireworks of Trump or the eloquent flourishes of former President Obama. The president-elect was workmanlike, occasionally plodding, and prone on occasion to fall back on the pabulum of political happy talk. Most of it we’ve all heard before, and some of it we desperately needed to hear even though we knew it already.
Yet there was a vibe about Biden, and about the VP-elect, that put me in mind of a strong horse in traces, breath gusting white in the chill November air. All that horse wants is to take one step forward, then another, and another, with the plow hitched to its back breaking open the earth behind. Nothing fancy, nothing flashy, just get it done.
Fancy and flashy won’t see us to the spring. Duplicating the plodding strength and patience of a workhorse, however, may just be how this grim story finds resolution. Biden and Harris want the plow. Soon enough, they’ll have it, and we will see if patience and the relentless truth, combined with hard work in the traces, head down, go forward, one step at a time, will be enough to pull us through. I think it will be, if we all emulate that horse, too.