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Martin Schram, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.
Outside, millions of desperate people have been standing for hours in lines stretching around the corners of America’s city streets and suburban strip malls. Inside, others have been searching the internet — and getting kicked off by overloaded websites and ticked-off by underinforming ones.
They were just trying to do the right thing: Get tested for COVID so they could find out if it was safe to go home for Christmas. Safe for them and mainly safe for their loved ones, as the new, highly contagious omicron variant was sweeping through America and a world already reeling from the deadly delta variant.
Yet there were no simple, cheap or free tests that millions could get in time to find a way to be sure they could have the most merry Christmas possible. But President Joe Biden just assured them that he’d get them the tests — just not until January, at best.
That’s how things have turned out as America nears the end of the first year of Biden’s so far up-and-down presidency. We have seen impressive successes, yet also shattering setbacks. But here’s the good news: Our president and his team can discover their central problem — and how to fix it — just by glancing at their own rearview mirror.
Look Back: 2021 turned out to be a Year of Worst-Case Scenarios. Time and again, Biden and especially his best and brightest advisers on domestic security and national security failed to anticipate the fact that a worst-case scenario could happen. So they were caught flatfooted when the worst happened — here in America and also half a world away in Afghanistan.
To sense the mindset that led to today’s worst-case crisis, check out this White House Dec. 6 news briefing.
Press secretary Jen Psaki, one of the best briefers I’ve seen in decades of covering presidencies, was asked a good, fair question many Americans would ask about COVID testing: “Last week … the president explained some ramp-up in testing. But there are still a lot of countries, like Germany and the U.K. and South Korea, that basically have massive testing, free of charge or for a nominal fee. Why can’t that be done in the United States?”
Psaki made the mistake press secretaries often make when they assume their first priority is defending their boss, rather than briefing the people. They turn their briefing into a debate.
“Should we just send one to every American?” the pressed secretary asked back at the questioner. “ … Then what — then what happens if you — if every American has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?”
But the self-detrimental defensiveness begins at the top. Listen to how Biden responded to PBS’ Yamiche Alcindor on Dec. 21, when she fairly asked what millions of Americans wanted to know: “What’s your message to Americans who are trying to get tested now and who are not able to get tested and who are wondering what took so long to ramp up testing?”
“Come on, ‘What took so long?’” Biden replied, testily repeating her question. “Well, what took so long is it didn’t take long at all. What happened was the omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought. If I had told you four weeks ago that this would spread by — a day-to-day basis — it would spread by 50, 100 percent, 200 percent, 500 percent, you would’ve looked at me and said, ‘Biden, what are you drinking?’ But that’s what it did.”
Yet another president found a way to paint himself into a corner of his Oval Office. The Biden I’ve known for decades would have been the first to say her question was fair — and he would have answered it with a Biden “straight-from-the-shoulder” reply. He would have said he sure wishes he’d asked the worst-case scenario question: Will a future COVID variant cause every American to want an at-home quick test? And he’d have answered his own question: Let’s order and stockpile them now — and if they’re ever needed, we can immediately give them out for free!
Earlier this year, we saw what happened when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin never asked the ultimate worst-case scenario question: If Afghanistan’s military collapses after we rushed the U.S. troop withdrawal, how will Americans and our Afghan allies get from Kabul to the airport so they could be airlifted to freedom? Sadly, we all saw that deadly answer on live TV.
And this past week, as omicron virus spread like a wildfire, we saw what happened because Biden and his top COVID advisers failed to ask — and answer — that worst-case question about stockpiling COVID quick tests months ago. They could have been giving away free quick tests this week so you and your loved ones could have stress-free holidays.
Team Biden can and must do better in 2022.