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.