The French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once said that every country gets the government it deserves. Likewise, perhaps every American president gets the COVID-19 infection he deserves.
OK, “deserves” might be a strong word. While de Maistre, a counter-Enlightenment intellectual who believed in the divine right of kings as the most stable form of government, probably would endorse the concept of pathogen as karmic comeuppance, we here at FiveThirtyEight believe a case of COVID isn’t anyone’s punishment for anything.
But, mayyyybe that’s a little less true if you’re the guy deciding what choices are available to everyone else. The news this week that President Biden had been diagnosed with COVID started me thinking about the ways an American president can set the stage for his own infection through his decisions about pandemic policy. If anyone in this country ever got a case of COVID because of their own mistakes, it’s Biden and Donald Trump. It’s almost as if each man’s illness was a microcosm of the larger way he chose to approach the virus — and of how those choices affected everyone else in the country he led.
Trump likely got his infection via a famously cavalier approach to party planning — throwing a largely unmasked gathering at a point in the pandemic when vaccines weren’t yet available. On Sept. 26, 2020, the then-president held a Rose Garden event to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Case numbers in Washington, D.C., were low at the time, but this was a party full of hugging and handshakes — and it launched a superspreader event that likely infected not just the president and first lady but also multiple members of Congress, White House staffers, members of the media and a whole litany of government and campaign workers.
Trump ended up in the hospital with a case so severe, he came close to being put on a ventilator and was given basically every drug doctors could think of to treat COVID — a mixture of dexamethasone, remdesivir and monoclonal antibodies. Throughout the ordeal, Trump’s large-scale public policy choices — mocking and dismissing masks and other ways of preventing transmission, downplaying the severity of COVID risks, promising a miracle would come along and make the virus disappear, etc. — were reflected in his own experience.
But while President Biden has approached the pandemic in a very different way than President Trump, he, too, has made a series of choices that set the stage for his own infection. If the overarching theme of Trump’s approach to COVID was to shut his eyes and hope the pandemic couldn’t see him if he couldn’t see it, the overarching theme of Biden’s approach has been to frame a collective disaster as just another matter of personal responsibility.
The administration thought it had a silver bullet, going so far as to declare that July 4, 2021, would be a celebration of freedom from COVID. They were so certain that individual vaccinations would be enough that they rolled back federal mask mandates in May 2021 under the assumption that if you did the right thing and got vaccinated, then you’d be fine. Even as delta, omicron, and multiple omicronlets proved this theory wrong, Biden’s policy has continued to focus mainly on getting more Americans vaccinated and boosted. Other policy options that could prevent spread — ventilation requirements, reliable data collection on case numbers, masking during periods of high transmission, getting vaccines to other countries where the virus still spreads unchecked — have largely been left to wither.
The result is an America where COVID keeps mutating, waves of disease keep coming and the populations of the most vulnerable remain isolated, trapped and dying. We have an America where we take COVID seriously but not literally. We have an America where even the most responsible and well-protected of Americans is almost guaranteed to get COVID eventually.
Even a president who trusts the science.