Biden’s Speech Should Emphasize Humility

President Joe Biden’s address tonight, exactly one year after his predecessor unofficially launched the nation’s pandemic response, is expected to tout the passage of the American Rescue Plan and the increase in vaccinations, both of which justify some bragging. Yet the moment also calls for some humility.

There is a considerable distance between Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign and George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech. The former was a slogan that reflected what the public was feeling — a true economic recovery. The latter was a banner on an aircraft carrier that made a premature declaration of U.S. victory in Iraq — an act of hubris that would haunt Bush for his remaining days in office.

Biden’s message needs to echo Reagan’s, not Bush’s. If the past year has taught anything, it is that misstatements — and overstatements — can have disastrous consequences. A significant part of America’s 530,000 deaths might be attributable to former President Donald Trump’s missteps, but his weren’t the only ones.

How differently might things have played out, for example, if the Centers for Disease Control and other health leaders (including, notably, Anthony Fauci) hadn’t discouraged widespread mask usage in February 2020? Yes, their intentions might have been well-placed: The message was deemed in the best interests of the public to forestall panic purchases of masks that would have created a shortage among health-care workers. But if the CDC had instead urged universal face coverings from the start — noting how Asian nations responded to the 2002 SARS outbreak — perhaps mask usage would never have devolved into just another battle in the culture wars.

More important, that “original sin” — along with early CDC testing failures — placed a seed of doubt among some Americans that the so-called “experts” weren’t quite as infallible as they seemed. Subsequent mixed messages on public gatherings (discouraged unless they were in support of racial justice) helped undermine the credibility of public health experts.

Now many Americans can see ourselves emerging on the other side of this year of hell. Biden deserves three cheers for keeping his promise of focusing on policy (particularly pandemic-related) instead of on Twitter fights. But he needs to resist the temptation to goad his critics.

Last week’s comment calling out Republican governors for their “Neanderthal thinking” for lifting mask mandates, for instance, was a rare rhetorical stumble. Are they being unwise? Yes. But childish insults are the previous guy’s brand. Biden is giving an address from the White House tonight because Americans were tired of the Insulter-in-Chief. They voted for the guy who promised to make policy job No. 1.

That means posing for more photos of fist-bumps with Republican governors and giving fewer quotes criticizing them. At any rate, the brewing border crisis is more than enough of a reality check for Biden. The country will be much better off if its president and governors can have civil relations.

As a certain New York governor has learned, fate can be a cruel mistress. Fortunes can change in just a few months. After a year in hell, what America needs more than anything is a year — or more — of humility.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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