In The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford described the satin-lined coffins, beautified corpses and lavish wreaths of the extortionate US funeral industry. What induced the bereaved to pay for such luxuries was not just their emotional frailty in their moment of loss. It was also a national culture that feared and even denied death: that had to literally dress up the cold fact of it.
In a viral pandemic, even one 58 years later, we might expect such a nation to seek to limit deaths at all costs — and those with harsher or more collectivist histories, such as China, to wear greater losses. But then what a bonfire of clichés the past 20 months have been.
The US share of world fatalities from Covid-19 far exceeds its share of the world’s population. It ranks between Mexico and Romania for deaths per 100,000 people. America has also been overtaken by Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil on the take-up of vaccines, despite having invented several of them.
Under the maladministration of Donald Trump, these numbers could be explained away as something aberrant and fleeting: the wages of populism. But Joe Biden has now been president for around half of the duration of the pandemic. He was elected in large part to contain it. His failure to do so is the central fact of his presidency.
It is also a curiously under-discussed one. The US does not have the atmosphere of a country that is still losing thousands to the illness each week. Far more voters name the economy as their principal gripe than cite public health. Biden’s Gerald Ford-ish approval ratings owe a lot to high retail prices. Had the best of the Mitford sisters lived to see it, this spectacle would have forced a revision of her great book. Whatever America lacks now, it is not an ability to look death in eye.
Nor, as Biden is treated to absolution over the pandemic, is there liberal bias at work. He received a scarcely believable amount of criticism from his own Democratic party over Afghanistan, remember, and that was a US war about which he had been presciently pessimistic for more than a decade.
Administrations that had botched the experiment of state-building in Afghanistan took less flak than he did for ending it. A politico-media class that had said little about the subject in recent years found its shrill voice.
On the economy, too, he has lucklessly become the face and voice of price inflation that is in fact global in sweep. To the extent that US monetary and fiscal looseness is at fault, much of it predates his White House. Trump passed not one but two vast stimulus bills.
No, if Biden is being excused his pandemic record, it is on the misplaced premise that he has too many forces ranged against him to succeed. True, central government can only do so much in a federal nation with an individualist ethos and an uncooperative opposition. The US was never going to wear European levels of restriction for European lengths of time. Having made free with the licence to socialise and travel, I am the first to salute it.
But none of this explains Biden’s string of unforced errors. He came later to the idea of vaccine mandates than, say, President Emmanuel Macron of France. When he got there, the policy was tentative in design and implementation. He has also spent most of this year on a social spending bill whose name, Build Back Better, rather assumes that the post-pandemic world is already here. As the bill makes its excruciating passage through Congress, the time and political focus it has drained from the war against the virus become incalculable.
It is hard to know if his prior experience of government makes this lack of executive grip harder to fathom, or much easier. At least to begin with, Barack Obama’s White House, which he served as vice-president, fell for the idea that effective government is about people of good faith holding office: that first principles are enough. The importance of the grind, of sheer technical slog, dawned on them late, if at all. The mistake recurred upon Biden’s inauguration last January, when much of the US left assumed that not being Trump was half the key to a resolved pandemic.
It wouldn’t matter so much if Biden’s record were of purely domestic note. But the US is engaged in an ideological contest with a China that has averted large-scale deaths and a recession. For third countries, weighing the two systems, the US performance might come to stand for that of an entire mode of government. The cause of democracy in the world is beleaguered enough without being associated, as in the US, with avoidable losses of life by the tens of thousands. To think, as bleak as things were a year ago, this could all be passed off as one rogue president’s doing.