Biden’s empty words about dealing with the new variant

Today, Joe Biden told reporters that lockdowns are “off the table for now” as a response to the new coronavirus variant. I consider this statement incoherent. To me, “off the table” means “ain’t gonna happen.” Lockdowns cannot be “off the table” if Biden is leaving open their possibility later on.

Biden’s statement reflects the fact that lockdowns are no longer popular, not any principled unwillingness to impose them.

But even if Biden had ruled out lockdowns completely, the statement wouldn’t be worth taking seriously. For one thing, Biden said he wasn’t going to impose a vaccine mandate, only to reverse course. This president does not say, even incoherently, what he means and does not mean what he says.

In addition, Biden lacks the power to impose lockdowns. He can recommend lockdowns, but it’s up to states and localities to decide whether to impose them.

Biden said that later this week, he will “put[] forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight COVID this winter, not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.” I don’t think it makes sense to lay out a plan for fighting the virus until we know more about its new variant — e.g. how lethal it is for various age groups and the extent to which existing vaccines are effective against it.

I’m also not convinced that, even once we have a better handle on these questions, a detailed federal strategy will do much good. My sense is that Biden wants to set forth such a strategy in part to show that he’s acting and in part to be able to take credit if the winter turns out to be less deadly than many expect it to be.

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