In New York we feel back where we started. It’s like 2020, with everyone in a mask and canceling gatherings and scrambling to find a test. Covid is everywhere. For the moment we appear to be the epicenter again, with 38,835 new cases reported in the state on Thursday, a record. I know many people who got sick in the past two weeks, but it’s not a terrible version of the illness. It’s a milder one, and hospitalization isn’t part of the equation. Early data seems to suggest this also. I am not an epidemiologist, and it’s foolish to make predictions in such a fluid and unknowable environment, but it’s Christmas, so I offer a purely instinctive reading:
Everything living wants to live, including this stupid little virus. It will shape-shift, find new entry points—anything to stay alive. But what we’re seeing now is the pandemic in its death throes. It’s going at everyone’s throats, in a frenzy, but it’s weaker than it was and knows it. It’s desperate where it used to be discerning (targeting the old). In its dying frenzy it will reach everyone; in the end we’ll all have had some variant. And then it will give up and slink away. Because while it got weaker, we, with vaccines, boosters, therapeutics and natural immunity, got stronger.
Yes, there will be more variants. The virus will not fully disappear from the news or our lives, but this third winter will be the last hard one. And then we’ll go on to what passes for normal life in America having learned, and changed, a great deal.
From the beginning I thought: This pandemic, long anticipated by science and surprisingly late in coming, is a chance to understand, at some grave cost, what we will need to survive future pandemics. A lot didn’t work this time; we have to learn what we need to do with medical and scientific establishments and practices, including increased research. At the very least we need to warehouse medical supplies built to last.
Republicans, for when you’re in charge: This isn’t the place to cut. We have to stay on the problem. We’re not at the end of an era but the beginning of one, and it’s going to take more.
Back to New York. Walking through once-empty Midtown Manhattan, I saw nonstop Christmas bustle, not as big as the old days but big, including something I hadn’t seen in a while and didn’t see last year: families with kids from out of town jostling along Fifth Avenue. There were lines at some stores. I returned from an excursion to read in this paper that there are indications the U.S. economy is booming. Early output estimates from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta put the annualized growth rate expected for this quarter at 7%, compared with 2% last quarter. It put America at a much better rate than the eurozone, with an expected 2% growth, and China, at 4%. The Journal reported that analysts expect the U.S. economy will have grown about 6% in 2021, most of it fueled by demand. “U.S. consumers, flush with trillions of dollars of fiscal stimulus, are snapping up manufactured goods and scarce materials.”
Six percent growth, if that turns out to be the final number, is pretty fabulous. But I’m not aware, and the polls don’t show, that the American people themselves experience the economy as going gangbusters. The obvious and primary reason is inflation—prices of the things that you need to live each day, groceries and gas, are way up. If you’ve been ordering food gifts for friends online, you have entered the world of the hundred-dollar ham. Economic growth and good employment numbers don’t feel like good news if inflation keeps pace with or exceeds wage growth.
But the cause would be more than inflation. If people think the economy is heating up because the system is pumped full of cash from two years of government spending they’ll experience any resulting growth as temporary and provisional, not organic but somehow unreal. They’ll stay wary of good data, especially when they believe high government spending itself tends to inflate the currency.
And I wonder if a lot of people aren’t worrying that there’s been some quiet but fundamental shift in expectations set in place during the pandemic—that you don’t really have to work anymore, or if you don’t like your job you don’t have to stay until you get a better one; you can just leave and one way or another get the support you need through benefits, programs and government assistance. People are wondering right now about the implications of the Great Resignation. More freedom, more enjoyment of life, less scrambling in a rat race—maybe that’s the right direction. But is it sustainable in the long term? Will it have some effect on what used to be called the national character? As a people we’ve always known how to grit through and suffer when history takes a turn. What will we be like when we don’t, and history gets more demanding?
These questions connect to the most fateful domestic decision of the Biden administration, which was to turn so far left domestically, with huge, dense, ideologically sprawling spending bills. The apparent collapse of their legislative agenda reflects the big political fact of 2021, which is the low popular standing of President Biden.
The decision to align with progressives was a miscalculation—destabilizing for Democrats and damaging to the president—but also a mystery. Did it spring from a single decision marked by a memorable sentence that we’ll be reading about in memoirs down the road? Something like, “You think it’s 2021, but it’s 1933, and this is our moment to complete the New Deal.” Was it a series of decisions made over weeks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a matter of grunts and nods as people ate lunch at their desks? Did anyone say, “The energy in our party is on the left, to hold together as a party and win on the Hill we must bring the left in and let it help drive the car”?
Or—in what really would have been the most consequential political statement of 2021—did anybody stand up and say, “My friends, big ambition is admirable but we don’t have the margins. We don’t have FDR’s House and Senate, our control is razor thin. The path for us is easy does it, day by day, smaller bills and plenty of outreach to Republicans, whose increasingly populist base doesn’t mind spending as long as it doesn’t seem insane. The progressives won’t like it, the Squad will hate it, but we can use them as a foil, as a useful illustration of what we’re not. We’ll use their criticism to underscore our centrism. We don’t need them. All we need to be popular is a) not to be
b) to provide steady leadership that delivers modest but regular improvements, and c) to do this in a way that leaves people saying, ‘My God, someone made Washington work again.’ That’s the path.”
Did anyone inside say that?
Is there still time to change tack?
That will be a great political question of 2022.
This column has been updated to include Thursday’s New York state Covid case count.
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