(CNN)America is sliding into a winter limbo of alarming spikes in Covid-19 cases and deepening economic pain while an apathetic lame duck White House and a deadlocked Congress provide no political leadership.
The darkest holiday season in modern history beckons, yet President Donald Trump and his closest aides, sulking after his election defeat, are doing little to save lives, apart from claiming credit for a vaccine that represents a way out of the nightmare of 2020 but remains months away for most Americans.
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and GOP-led Senate will return to Washington this week, but have shown no signs they can get together to ease the consequent economic pain of millions of unemployed Americans amid scenes of long Great Depression-style lines outside food banks.
President-elect Joe Biden is moving quickly to put a diverse and experienced team around him — he rolled out an all-female senior communications team Sunday, and he is expected to announce top economic officials this week.
But even a President-elect who promises to replace Trump’s neglect with a science-based approach to the pandemic can only do so much before he takes office on January 20, when the health crisis and economic toll are likely to be far worse.
The current President spent Sunday firing off delusional new claims to bolster his fantasy that the election was stolen, which did nothing to advance his inept legal cases but further poisoned hopes of national unity when he’s gone.
By contrast, top government health experts blanketed Sunday talk shows, warning of an alarming post-Thanksgiving rise in Covid cases, overwhelmed hospitals and exhausted health workers and pleaded with a country beset by pandemic fatigue to mitigate the pain and death for a few more months.
“This is a really dangerous time,” government testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
Biden waits in the wings
Developments over the Thanksgiving weekend reflected a juxtaposition between an incoming President who is gearing up to tackle a staggering national crisis and a sitting commander-in-chief who retains his authority but is pursuing baseless claims over election fraud that will complicate the task of his successor.
It was left to the heads of government health agencies, some of whom were effectively muzzled by the President ahead of the election, to muster national resolve.
Since Biden has little capacity to limit the explosion in Covid-19 cases, his most critical initial task will be to preside over the distribution of a vaccine developed by private companies in coordination with the current White House.
Giroir, the assistant secretary for health, said on “State of the Union” that he was “really” confident in the plan to distribute the vaccine, ahead of Food and Drug Administration meetings in the coming weeks to consider an emergency use authorization. Highest risk groups, including health workers and elderly people living in assisted living facilities, could start getting injections before the end of the year. A decision is expected after a December 10 meeting of an FDA committee but it could be late spring before most Americans see a vaccine — or the double shots that some require.
Giroir’s confidence is encouraging. But it must be seen as another upbeat assessment from an administration that has made repeated optimistic assessments on the provision of protective equipment for front-line workers, falling death rates, expanding testing and forecasts about hospital occupancy that have all proven to be empty.
Dr. Megan Ranney, a Brown University emergency physician who has been treating Covid patients, said Sunday that political failures had brewed a disaster in the nation’s hospitals.
“We have been talking for months about the need for increased supplies of personal protective equipment, about the need for increased testing supplies, we still desperately need those,” Ranney said on CNN “Newsroom.”
“But even if those were all available, the trouble is that the surge in Covid-19 patients right now is so great, it is overwhelming hospitals, it is overwhelming available beds and worst of all, it is overwhelming the number of available staff.”
Grim warnings from top health officials
The unity of messaging from government health experts over the weekend was remarkable and ominous — and only emphasized the silence of Trump, who has repeatedly lied about the US “rounding the corner” on the crisis, or Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force.
Giroir told CNN’s Dana Bash that he was “very concerned” about high levels of Thanksgiving travel and asked Americans to avoid high risk areas like bars and other indoors spaces.
America’s top infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, warned of a potential “surge superimposed upon that surge that we’re already in” heading into December.
“We’re entering into what really is a precarious situation because we’re in the middle of a steep slope,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
US Surgeon General Jerome Adams pleaded with Americans to stick to mask wearing and social distancing.
“I want to be straight with the American people, it’s going to get worse over the next several weeks,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “The actions that we take in the next several days will determine how bad it is or whether or not we continue to flatten our curve.”
And another senior member of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, who said she hopes to begin briefing Biden’s team this week after a transition delayed by the President, said people who traveled for the holiday should get tested and avoid vulnerable relatives.
“To every American, this is the moment to protect yourself and your family,” Birx said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Pressure mounts on Congress to avert economic devastation
With the President absent, it will fall to governors and mayors to pick up the mantle of leadership again. But a flurry of new restrictions on public gatherings and restrictions on restaurants is likely to further damage an economy that has been hammered by the pandemic.
So pressure is rising on Congress to break out of its partisan stasis and offer more help to millions of Americans who are out of work because of the pandemic.
Lawmakers will return to Washington after the holiday this week after months of the two chambers failing to pass a new and combined Covid-19 aid package. The prospects for progress still look grim with a funding deal needed to avert a partial government shutdown by December 11. In the past, however, such deadlines have sometimes spurred a modicum of political cover that allows incremental deals. Still, a more comprehensive pandemic package may have to await the arrival of the new President in January. But the reality of divided power in Washington — pending two runoffs in Georgia that will decide control of the Senate — and the likelihood that Senate Republicans will rediscover their budget hawk instincts with a Democrat in the White House, only add to Biden’s huge problems. There is also concern that the failure of Congress to act will hamper the ability of states to train workers and effectively distribute several vaccine candidates.
Biden, who will have further meetings with his transition team this week and is finally due to receive the President’s Daily Brief, is pressing ahead with building out his White House team.
On Sunday, he named an all-female White House messaging operation, which will include former Obama White House communications director Jen Psaki, a former CNN political commentator, returning to the White House as press secretary and Kate Bedingfield, a top campaign official, as the new West Wing’s communications director.
The President-elect is also expected to make official the nomination of former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to be the first woman to serve as Treasury secretary. If confirmed, Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo — Biden’s pick for deputy Treasury secretary — would be the first Black person to hold that powerful position.
Biden is expected to build out his diverse economic team with Neera Tanden, who would be the first woman of color to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden, the chief executive of the Center for American Progress, is a controversial figure among some progressives after working as a campaign aide to Hillary Clinton in her 2016 battle for the nomination against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Biden is also poised to name Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton economist, to lead the Council of Economic Advisers, elevating another Black woman in a high-profile role in the incoming administration.
While Biden was building a new administration, Trump spent the weekend playing golf, and at Camp David while launching fresh, spurious claims about election fraud. He claimed there was “tremendous cheating” by Democrats in a Fox Business interview that featured almost no pushback from sympathetic anchor Maria Bartiromo.
Providing no evidence for his lies about the “greatest fraud in the history of our country,” the President more importantly offered no answers or responsibility for the testing days ahead in the worst domestic crisis to afflict the country since World War II.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this story.