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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Politics drives the end of covid mitigation. It should — but that's too bad

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. According to the Associated Press: On this day in 1936, Nazi Germany’s Reichstag passed a law investing the Gestapo secret police with absolute authority, exempt from any legal review.

The big idea

Politics drives the end of covid mitigation. It should but that's too bad.

With relatively few exceptions in U.S. history, the top brass at the Pentagon has known more about waging war than the president of the United States, but he’s the one in charge. The CIA has more spycraft. NASA has actual rocket scientists. But they, too, answer to the Oval Office.

The pandemic has given Americans a refresher course in federalism, reminding us of the central importance of governors, even if Washington made many of the most consequential decisions, like spurring vaccine development. But it is also testing American attitudes about whether elected officials or infectious-disease experts should call the shots.

Structurally, the task should fall to elected officials, whose jobs require them to assess the trade-offs of a decision like limiting in-person restaurant dining. How much will it limit the spread? How many lives will be saved? How many jobs will be lost? How many businesses will go under?

Politicians get the last word for the same reason the Constitution anoints the president commander in chief and reserves the power to declare war for Congress — they’re directly accountable to the voters. The experts are not.

But ideally pandemic decisions should also be shaped by public health experts, people who know “high throughput” is not an Olympic event and who track the shifting scientific consensus about a novel virus that has killed more than 900,000 Americans, with 2,600 more each day.

If you need heart surgery, you’ll probably pick a surgeon over a podcast host. (Although, as I think about it, that’s perhaps not a given in 2022.)

This is not to say public health experts don’t consider trade-offs. Many do. My college classmate and friend Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health, has talked about safely reopening schools since at least late spring 2020.

It’s also not to absolve political leaders of sometimes being horribly, and sometimes deliberately wrong. Former president Donald Trump has admitted to lying about the severity of the pandemic. President Biden has misled the public on the effectiveness of the vaccines. (This is context, not equivalence.)

The vaccine success story

Arguably the best response to the pandemic happened under Trump: Harnessing the power of the private sector to produce a safe, effective vaccine that today is the best weapon against covid. So did the worst thing: Sowing politically driven anti-vaccine doubts, chiefly from conservative politicians and the right-wing media ecosystem. The overwhelming majority of Americans dying from the virus is unvaccinated.

It’s also true that Americans may decide the balance of power is off, or the system needs more safeguards. Several state legislatures have moved to rein in some of the broad powers governors have flexed in the pandemic. Lawmakers have proposed curbing the president’s power to launch nuclear weapons.

These questions are at issue again now as multiple governors defy guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and move to ease mitigation measures like required masks, putting the White House in an awkward relationship with top Democrats in a handful of states.

My colleagues Fenit Nirappil and Tyler Pager reported Wednesday night: “California, Oregon, Delaware and Connecticut joined New Jersey in announcing a partial end to mask mandates Monday. The governors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts announced plans Wednesday to end school mask mandates, while the executives of New York and Illinois said they would scrap mask requirements for businesses but are still reviewing schools. Washington announced it would end an outdoor mask mandate and the indoor mask mandate was under review.”

This adds up to a pivotal moment in the politics of the pandemic. From the outset, Democrats urged public health restrictions while Republicans largely rejected them despite the science showing they would save lives. But now — with many Americans vaccinated, the public deeply impatient and the current surge fading — many Democrats are concluding that the time for aggressive statewide measures has passed and are unwilling to risk a further electoral backlash.”

That’s put their governors at odds with Biden’s CDC, and his White House.

“We continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing. “That’s much of the country right now, in public indoor settings.”

“We recognize people are tired of the pandemic. They're tired of wearing masks. I bet all of you are. I certainly know I am,” Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “We continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission — which is basically the entire country.”

Two years into the pandemic, Americans are more confused about what steps to take and more critical of both public health experts and the politicians they sometimes advise, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center.

Fifty percent of Americans say public health officials, like those at the CDC, are doing an excellent or good job responding to the virus, down from 79 percent in March 2020 and 60 percent from June 2021.

Forty-six percent say the same about their state elected officials, down from 70 percent in March 2020. Biden’s positive ratings are down seven points from August. Four out of 10 said he’s doing an excellent or good job, 60 percent a fair or poor job.

What's happening now

Prices climbed 7.5% in January compared with last year, continuing inflation’s fastest pace in 40 years

“Inflation was expected to climb relative to last January, when the economy reeled from a winter coronavirus surge with no widespread vaccines. Today’s new high inflation rate reflects all the accumulated price gains, in gasoline and other categories, built up in a tumultuous 2021,” Rachel Siegel and Andrew Van Dam report.

Russia begins military exercises in Black Sea and Belarus, stoking fears of preparations for an attack on Ukraine

“Russian forces on Thursday began 10 days of military exercises with Belarus, and warships arrived at a strategic port on the Black Sea, as Western diplomats seek to avert what they fear could be an invasion after preparations cloaked as training,” Alex Horton, Robyn Dixon and Rachel Pannett report.

Senate poised to pass bill to end forced arbitration in sexual assault, harassment cases

“The bill would nullify agreements between employees and their employers in which the employees waive their rights — sometimes without realizing it — to sue in the case of sexual assault or harassment. Instead, the agreements require the employees to settle their disputes with an arbitrator,” Amy B Wang reports.

A bill aiming to protect children online reignites a battle over privacy and free speech

“Under the Earn It Act, tech companies would lose some long-standing protections they enjoy under a legal shield called Section 230, opening them up to more lawsuits over posts of child sexual abuse material on their platforms. The bill, which was first introduced in 2020, would also create a national commission of law enforcement, abuse survivors and industry experts to develop best practices to address child abuse online,” Cat Zakrzewski reports.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

‘From the White House down,’ pleas for help disrupted Afghan evacuation, top U.S. commander says

“The U.S. military mission to evacuate American citizens and foreign allies from Afghanistan was hampered by continuous appeals for help from an array of advocates, including White House officials, members of Congress, veterans of the war, media outlets and even the Vatican, according to the operation’s senior commander,” Dan Lamothe reports.

Rear Adm. Peter Vasely called the outreach a ‘distraction’ that ‘created competition for already stressed resources.’ His comments appear in sworn testimony provided for a U.S. Army investigation of the Aug. 26 suicide bombing that killed an estimated 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members outside Kabul’s international airport.”

… and beyond

How monopolization in meatpacking is starving farmers and families

“According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer price index for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs increased 12.8 percent over 12 months, with the index rising 20.9 percent for beef and veal alone,” Ahmari Anthony writes for the American Prospect.

“In September, the White House had already released a briefing identifying the true culprit—the four major meatpacking firms. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the top four firms in beef, pork, and poultry own 82 percent, 66 percent, and 54 percent of the packing and processing industry, respectively.”

  • These firms began the process of vertical integration around the turn of the century and since have managed to monopolize this critical aspect of the industry, which sits directly in between farm and table on the supply chain.”

The latest on omicron

The CDC might update its guidance on when states should consider lifting mask mandates

“Agency scientists and officials are debating whether to continue to publicly support using transmission data as a marker for whether to ease public health interventions such as masking, particularly in school settings, the people said. CDC staff are weighing whether the agency should use case rates as a metric or whether it should lean more heavily on hospitalization data, particularly information on hospital capacity. In recent days, the CDC has reached out to external doctors, scientists and public health organizations for input, one of the people with knowledge of the discussions said,” Politico’s Erin Banco and Adam Cancryn report.

The Biden agenda

Biden to propose 4.6 percent pay raise for federal employees, the biggest hike in 20 years

“Federal employees and military service members would receive average raises of 4.6 percent next January under the budget President Biden will propose in March, marking what would be the workforce’s largest salary hike in two decades, according to senior officials at two federal agencies,” Lisa Rein reports.

White House does damage control with Latino allies after reports on frustration with Becerra

“The White House is racing to respond to Latino allies rankled by public criticism of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra’s job performance, according to more than a dozen administration officials and Hispanic leaders,” NBC News’s Jonathan Allen and Natasha Korecki report.

The administration was so rattled by the outpouring of concern that it launched a public campaign to reassure Becerra — and key Latino supporters — after The Washington Post reported last week that White House frustration with Becerra had grown so deep that aides have openly discussed replacing him.”

Biden administration plan calls for $5 billion network of electric vehicle chargers along interstates

“The Biden administration laid out plans Thursday for a $5 billion network of electric vehicle chargers along interstate highways, aiming to boost confidence in battery-powered cars by ensuring drivers can always find somewhere to plug in,” Ian Duncan reports.

Trying to revive his agenda, Biden puts focus on drug prices

“Biden is traveling on Thursday to Culpeper, Virginia, where White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president will call attention to the ‘unacceptable’ cost of medications,” the Associated Press’s Chris Megerian reports.

Senior director for global health security, who worked closely with Lander, to leave the NSC

[Beth] Cameron helped formulate President Joe Biden’s international strategy for fighting Covid-19 and worked intensively on the administration’s distribution of vaccines across the world. She also worked closely with Eric Lander, the former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, on a plan to improve U.S. pandemic readiness. Lander resigned Monday after POLITICO detailed reports of bullying and mistreatment of colleagues,” Politico’s Erin Banco reports

White House weighs former key Obama economic adviser for senior Treasury job

Jay Shambaugh, who was a key economic adviser in President Barack Obama’s White House, is under consideration to be Treasury under secretary for international affairs, the agency’s top financial diplomat, according to three people familiar with the matter,” Politico’s Kate Davidson and Daniel Lippman report.

What to know about inflation, visualized

“As the coronavirus pandemic enters its third year, families across the United States and even some other nations are feeling the pinch of price hikes of necessities including food, housing and energy, thanks to record-high inflation,” our colleagues Rachel Siegel, Annabelle Timsit, David J. Lynch, Abha Bhattarai and Laura Reiley report.

Hot on the left

Build Back Never?

“The thought has crossed Democrats’ minds,” Politico's Burgess Everett reports.

“Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed in December that the chamber will ‘vote on a revised version of the House-passed Build Back Better Act — and we will keep voting on it until we get something done.’ That’s not the strategy at the moment."

“Instead, the Senate is now in a long cooling-off period after the twin failures of ‘Build Back Better’ and a push to change the Senate rules to pass elections bills. Democrats are turning to fixing the Postal Service, sexual misconduct reform, spending bills, a Supreme Court vacancy, the Violence Against Women Act and possibly changing the Electoral Count Act and sanctioning Russia.”

Hot on the right

Trump’s endorsement spree

“Donald Trump made and then surpassed his 100th public endorsement on Wednesday in political races around the country since leaving the White House, according to an Insider analysis of his post-presidential activity,” Business Insider's Warren Rojas and Jake Lahut report.

“It’s an important milestone that shows Trump's enduring staying power inside the Republican party. His list of MAGA-backed candidates also demonstrates a penchant for picking both incumbent and rookie political candidates with one thing in common: absolute loyalty to him.”

Today in Washington

At 12:30 p.m., Biden will deliver remarks on health care costs with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra at Germanna Community College's Daniel Technology Center in Culpeper, Va.

Biden will depart Virginia at 2:55 p.m. and is expected to arrive at the White House at 3:25 p.m.

Biden and Vice President Harris will meet with Senate Judiciary Democrats to discuss the Supreme Court nomination process at 4:45 p.m.

In closing

Dolly Parton’s Dollywood pledges free college for employees

She’s done it again, folks. 

“Herschend Enterprises, Dollywood’s parent company, announced Tuesday that Dollywood will pay 100 percent of the tuition costs, fees and books for employees who pursue higher education. Starting on Feb. 24, all 11,000 seasonal, part-time and full-time employees at Herschend’s 25 U.S. attractions, including Dollywood, can register for the GROW U pilot program,” Timothy Bella reports.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.