A Push for Normalcy Tests the Gerontocracy

As those around the president fall ill, the White House—and the nation—must adjust expectations.

President Biden surrounded by lawmakers while signing legislation
Al Drago / Bloomberg / Getty

Yesterday afternoon, President Joe Biden hosted a good old-fashioned bill-signing ceremony at the White House. Before an audience of several dozen in the State Dining Room, the president celebrated the long-awaited enactment of a postal-reform bill. After his brief remarks, a large, bipartisan group of lawmakers crowded around Biden as he put pen to paper on the legislation. They huddled in close, as politicians do, silently jostling for prime position in the photo. None of them wore a mask, although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi carried one around her wrist like a handbag.

The event was a taste of the normalcy that Biden has been trying to create lately. Reality intruded this morning, however, when Pelosi announced that she had tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the highest-ranking government official to do so since former President Donald Trump’s near-death bout with the virus in October 2020. The 82-year-old speaker stood maskless right beside the 79-year-old Biden yesterday; she also attended an even larger, mostly mask-free event at the White House a day earlier that featured Biden and former President Barack Obama.

Biden’s own test came back negative last night, the White House said in a statement. Because he interacted only briefly with Pelosi at both events, he is not considered a close contact under the CDC guidelines. But that may be wishful thinking. The virus seems to be stalking the president: Two members of Biden’s Cabinet, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, tested positive after attending the annual Gridiron Club dinner on Saturday night, a gala that brought together several hundred members of the D.C. elite. The president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, also tested positive after attending the dinner.

Biden, who did not attend the Gridiron Club event, is going about his business this week, reflecting what he called the “new moment” that the country has entered in its fight against the pandemic. “We are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines,” the president said during last month’s State of the Union address. “COVID-19 need no longer control our lives.”

As he has throughout his tenure, Biden is trying to model the behavior the government is recommending. He’s fully vaccinated and double-boosted, having received an additional shot within days of their authorization for people over the age of 50 or who are immunocompromised. When the CDC urged wearing masks in public spaces, the president wore one except when speaking, to the point where Republicans mocked him for keeping his face covered while walking outside alone during trips between his helicopter and the White House. Now that the CDC has updated its recommendations, Biden is back to glad-handing in close quarters without a mask.

Yet the push for normalcy is complicated when the leaders doing the pushing are, according to the CDC, still at the highest risk of getting very sick or dying from COVID. People in Biden and Pelosi’s age group, 75–84, represent just 3.3 percent of COVID-19 cases recorded during the pandemic, but they make up more than one-quarter of all deaths. That older Americans comprise such a small portion of overall cases is likely because millions of them are long retired and interact with far fewer people than the president of the United States and the speaker of the House. (Both of Pelosi’s octogenarian lieutenants, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 82, and Majority Whip James Clyburn, 81, weathered mild COVID-19 cases during the winter Omicron wave.) With COVID cases rising again in more than half the country, including the District of Columbia, public-health experts are encouraging people at higher risk for severe COVID, including the elderly, to exercise more precautions. Can Biden do that while projecting “normalcy”?

The CDC already recommends that older adults take extra precautions to reduce their risk of contracting the virus, but the White House has given no indication that Biden will do so. This afternoon he watched alongside his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, as the Senate confirmed her to the bench. The two embraced, and neither wore a mask. Biden’s current relaxed posture toward the virus may represent a political imperative for the president heading into an election season that is already expected to be difficult for his party; the public, Biden acknowledged last month, is “tired, frustrated, and exhausted” after more than two years of pandemic life. Certainly now is a comparatively better time to get the coronavirus than when Trump fell sick barely a month ahead of the 2020 election, before the availability of vaccines.

Perhaps the White House is resigned to the president eventually contracting the virus, given how transmissible both the Omicron variant and its even sneakier cousin, BA.2, have proved to be. Most recent infections among public officials, even those in Biden’s age bracket, have been mild. Pelosi is exhibiting no symptoms, her office said, nor is Garland, who is 69. Nobody should wish illness on anybody, least of all the president. But given how close the virus is coming to Biden, and how little alarm the White House is (publicly) expressing, a positive test result wouldn’t be surprising; it might even be, well, normal.