Will we have a coronavirus vaccine by Inauguration Day, or will it still be several months off? If we do have a vaccine, will it have been competently distributed, or will America be a haphazard patchwork of immunity? Will the spread of infection, and the deaths that follow, slow or quicken? Will the economy have stabilized, or will the country be careening into the worst hole in human memory?
Joe Biden does not know the answers to any of those questions—no one does. But the many uncertainties make it exceptionally hard for the presumptive Democratic nominee to plan what he’d do if he is elected president.
“When President Biden is sworn in, in January, who knows how many people will have died by then?” California Representative Karen Bass, a potential vice-presidential candidate, told me. “And then who knows what the economy would be? We could be in a depression.”
By August of most presidential-election years, the candidates have offered policy blueprints for the four years ahead. This exercise always has a level of science fiction to it—the ideas are aspirational, based on generous assumptions about what Congress and the voters will actually support. This race is different: Donald Trump has repeatedly whiffed when asked what he’d do in his second term (even though the questions have been gently lobbed at him by friendly Fox News hosts), and the coronavirus has left Biden laying out broad guesses, not knowing how bad public health and the economy will be by the time he’d take over, if he wins.
What Biden faces will be familiar, on a smaller scale, to any American trying to plan for the future. Six months ago, few outside of China had ever heard of social distancing or the coronavirus. Six months from now, the situation could have changed multiple times.
The result, though, is that Biden is left hoping America elects him on a hunch about what he’d do—because it remains a mystery.
Jake Sullivan, the adviser managing coronavirus policy development for Biden, has been helping put together what the campaign calls the “Build Back Better” agenda, which includes proposals such as investing in manufacturing and small businesses and taking a more structural approach to thinking about racial equity and health care. It hasn’t been easy.
“We’re trying to set down road maps and guidelines that work and would be relevant under a range of different scenarios,” Sullivan told me, “with enough specificity that we can show how the vice president would be different from the current incompetent response, but also with enough flexibility to accommodate a number of different realties that may present themselves with respect to what the economic and pandemic situation may be by January.”
Biden and his team are more optimistic about the trajectory of the pandemic itself, believing that the infection and death rates will be more under control by January. They’ve seen evidence that real therapeutics are coming soon, and they are holding out hope for a vaccine.
That’s where their hope runs out. Early in the pandemic, Biden’s advisers were having private discussions that looked at a potentially fast, “V-shaped” economic recovery, I’m told. Into the summer, they were eyeing the turnarounds in some European countries, thinking that might be possible here. But with each day, they have gotten more worried about what would await Biden if he wins. “We don’t know exactly what the unemployment number is going to be, or what the economic situation is going to be, but we know it’s not going to be good,” Sullivan told me.
Like any other major presidential nominee, Biden already has a transition team in place in the event that he wins. By law, that process needs to begin over the summer, with collaborations among agencies across the federal government, even if that means a lot of wasted effort should Biden lose. Ted Kaufman, Biden’s close friend and former chief of staff, is running the campaign’s transition process. This is the third transition Kaufman has been a part of, and when he served as a senator from Delaware after being appointed to the seat Biden gave up to be elected vice president, he wrote a law strengthening the transition process.
This transition is like nothing Kaufman has dealt with before, he told me.
Already, Kaufman said he has begun building a bigger team than normal to account for the different scenarios the transition will have to consider. “We have to plan what we call ‘unconventional challenges’ surrounding Trump, COVID-19, and the economy,” he said. “Changing power for the most powerful country in the history of the world is always a challenge. Every four years, it gets exponentially harder, and that’s even truer with today’s unconventional challenges.”
Take reopening schools—potentially the pandemic problem that will shape society and the economy the most over the next year. Trump has no plan to reopen schools, other than demanding that they open and claiming that they’re not opening for “political” reasons, rather than because of the health and infrastructure worries that most parents and staff have. “My view is the schools should open. This thing's going away. It will go away like things go away,” Trump said on Wednesday morning in an appearance on Fox News.
Biden, meanwhile, has issued a framework that calls to put health first and that proposes a $90 billion fund to help schools make changes. He can’t do anything to implement it. And if he does win, he would be coming into office more than halfway through the school year. Biden’s advisers are tossing around ideas internally, such as potentially proposing, once in office, a new school-year start date of March 1 or April 1, and then extending it into next summer, but they know that at the moment, this is all just wishful thinking. And that doesn’t even account for the state-by-state negotiations with teachers’ unions that any extension would entail, and that would likely require federal leadership, among all the other elements they’d need to make any of this workable.
Or imagine what would happen if promising developments are made on a coronavirus vaccine by the fall. Most expect that Trump would be pushing people to rush to get it, whereas Biden expects to urge careful safety testing first. Aside from the cognitive dissonance of Trump, who has courted anti-vaxxers, being pro-vaccine and Biden hesitating, there will almost certainly be huge problems in production and distribution of a vaccine. The Trump administration has taken no clear steps to prepare, and Biden can only issue statements about how more preparations are needed. Even if a vaccine is ready by Election Day, there’s no way to know how many Americans would be vaccinated by Inauguration Day.
Meanwhile, ideas for how to spark economic growth, even those that Biden has proposed in campaign speeches, are all being trimmed. “If you want to do a big infrastructure bill, how much can you do?” Kaufman said. “I don’t know what there’s going to be when Trump gets through, in terms of our debt as a percent of the gross domestic product. We know it’s not going to be good.”
Biden’s approach to the economy is to go big on spending—maybe not at the level of the $4 trillion in stimulus money spent so far, but probably not far behind. Campaign aides are assuming that he would have to pass a big spending bill next year, but cannot tell yet if that money would be more for relief or for recovery planning.
Advisers are carefully watching the current negotiations in Congress, anxious that they could create new problems if they result in a deal that expires at the end of January—assuming Congress is able to make a deal at all. There is some logic to that, given that Senate Republicans haven’t approved any new funding since May, and that Congress expects to go on a long recess through the election and might not want to leave such big decisions to a lame-duck session in December. However, that means Biden could be immediately thrown into intense congressional negotiations if he’s elected, likely after a transition made difficult by Trump’s expected lack of cooperation and with other crises looming. Then again, polls suggest that Biden might be coming into office with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, which would redefine the negotiations to make a deal both more to his liking and easier to finalize.
Biden has been in regular contact with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Aides who have been told about these conversations say they’re mostly check-ins from Biden, who is leaving the negotiations to congressional leadership. “Having been in a lot of those rooms, the vice president knows you can’t run an operation like this by remote control,” Sullivan told me. In speaking with other aides on the Hill, they describe a sense of relief in not having to worry about getting from Biden what Senate Republicans have been getting from Trump. In March, the Senate GOP waited on an approving tweet from him before voting on the last big relief bill. In the past week, Trump has called the new Senate Republican bill “semi-irrelevant,” and had White House aides push for $1.75 billion to build a new FBI headquarters, to the annoyed surprise of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Local and state governments are also trying to sort out their long-term planning, not knowing what the situation will be, or what will be happening in the federal government.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, for example, has already extended his state’s budget for three months over the summer, as he worked to get a handle on the state’s outbreak and a sense of the finances in Trenton. Because Murphy is the only major Democratic leader who’s kept up a good relationship with Trump during the pandemic—even getting an invitation to dinner at the president’s Bedminster golf club in June—I asked Murphy what he might expect from a Biden presidency instead.
He answered carefully, trying to preserve his relationship with Trump, and to account for how hard it is to tell what Biden would do.
“It’s probably more values based. You’d see consistent mask wearing by him. You’d probably see a pretty significant investment in manufacturing to replenish the strategic stockpile. I suspect a lot of the energies, which are largely private sector, being put into therapeutics and vaccines would be encouraged by his administration and by his folks,” he told me. “There’s no question I’m for Joe Biden for president. But if that were not to come to pass, you just hope, please, God, you’ll get a continually more robust response by the current administration.”