Full Episode: A Look Back at a Year of COVID-19

Mar. 12, 2021 AT 9:14 p.m. EST

It’s the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic shifting the world as we once knew it. The panel reflected on one of the deadliest years in American history, & how the country is fighting to move forward. Susan Davis of NPR guest moderates.

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SUSAN DAVIS: The COVID-19 pandemic one year in.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) A year ago we were hit with a virus that was met with silence.

MS. DAVIS: President Biden addresses the nation, marking one year since the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic and hours after signing a landmark $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed along party lines.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) President Biden’s American Rescue Plan is a plan to crush the virus.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): (From video.) This isn’t a relief bill; it’s pretty much a payoff for Pelosi’s political allies.

MS. DAVIS: We discuss a year of horror and hope, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.

MS. DAVIS: Welcome to Washington Week. I’m Susan Davis.

It has been one year since the COVID-19 pandemic shattered our reality and stopped the world in its tracks. Here’s Dr. Anthony Fauci and former President Trump last year at this time.

NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) We will see more cases and things will get worse than they are right now.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We will be suspending all travel from Europe. It goes away. It’s going away. We want it to go away with very, very few deaths. I am officially declaring a national emergency, two very big words. We’re now in very, very strong shape.

MS. DAVIS: In his first primetime speech to the nation, President Joe Biden looked back at one of the deadliest years in American history and charted a path forward.

PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We’ve lost so much over the last year. We’ve lost family and friends. We’ve lost businesses and dreams we spent years building. But as I stand here tonight, we’re proving once again something I’ve said time and time again: It’s never, ever a good bet to bet against the American people. America is coming back.

MS. DAVIS: This Wednesday, Dr. Fauci gave a dose of hope to a weary nation.

NIAID DIRECTOR ANTHONY FAUCI: (From video.) Things are going much better in the right direction particularly because of the scientific advances that allowed us to have now multiple highly efficacious vaccines, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

MS. DAVIS: Tonight we have invited back a panel of reporters who joined our show during the first terrifying weeks of this crisis: Yasmeen Abutaleb, national health policy reporter for The Washington Post; Eamon Javers, senior Washington correspondent for CNBC; Toluse Olorunnipa, national political reporter for The Washington Post; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Let’s take a listen to what our panelists had to say in March 2020.

YASMEEN ABUTALEB: (From video.) You’ve seen the president has still sought to downplay the risk of the virus, even as we’ve seen the number of cases in the U.S. climb over the last week and pop up in more than a dozen states.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: (From video.) President Trump’s sort of play it by ear, fly by the seat of your pants approach does not work well within a political crisis that stems from a global pandemic.

SUSAN PAGE: (From video.) This is an existential threat for President Trump in a way impeachment was not. It’s already changed the political landscape for 2020.

EAMON JAVERS: (From video.) The pilot light in the economy could be about to go out and we might not have the ability to restart that.

MS. DAVIS: Yasmeen, this pandemic pressure tested the country’s health-care infrastructure like never before. What did we learn about the state of our health-care system?

MS. ABUTALEB: I think the pandemic exposed, you know, the many weaknesses that we might have known theoretically existed in the health-care system or maybe encountered in a sort of less severe way, but this really brought a lot of it to the forefront. The U.S. has an extremely decentralized health-care system, which I think made it very difficult for different regions and counties and cities to have the surge capacity they needed as they grappled with outbreaks. You saw it happen in New York City, in New Orleans, in Chicago, in major metropolitan areas all across the country, and it also made it very hard to coordinate a federal response because the federal government can make recommendations but ultimately decisions fall to state and local leaders.

MS. DAVIS: Toluse, this was not an equal opportunity pandemic. Black and Latino communities suffered much of the hardship not just due to the virus, but the economic effects of it. And then in the middle of it all we had this racial justice uprising following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. In the last year, how has this country’s attitudes towards racial inequality changed or at least been challenged?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, you can see the change and the change in administration if you look at how President – former President Trump talked about a lot of these issues compared to how the new president, President Biden, and his vice president, the first African American woman to be vice president, talk about these issues. They talk about racial justice every time they talk about policy, whether it’s health care, whether it’s housing, whether it’s police reform and accountability. All of these issues are now top of mind and they’re now being discussed at a national level, in part because of all of these various issues that you mentioned from the pandemic, which we saw had a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities especially, on poor Americans in particular, and when you talk about the racial justice movement that happened over the summer we’re now seeing that spread not only into issues related to policing but if you look at the American Rescue Plan that Joe Biden just signed into law a lot of the issues, from poverty to education to health care, a lot of these issues are issues that are especially relevant for African American and Hispanic communities that have been left behind as we’ve seen during this pandemic. So I imagine that that kind of policymaking will continue to be what we see from this administration because they’ve started in this first 50 days really centering these issues and making them at the forefront of our public policy.

MS. DAVIS: Eamon, fortunately the pilot light did not go out, but due in large part to trillions of dollars that the government pumped into the economy over the last year. At the same time, workers have suffered, small businesses have suffered, many have closed their doors forever. What is the state of the U.S. economy and its workers, and how healthy is it?

MR. JAVERS: I mean, it’s a mixed bag right now, right? I mean, economists talk about this K-shaped recovery where one group of people is going up and the other group of people is going down, and that’s sort of what we’ve seen is this bifurcated response. You’ve had a lot of white-collar workers who through the miracle of technology have been able to shift all of their work to home in a surprisingly seamless way. It’s actually worked – this great experiment that we’re in as a nation has really worked. It might not look like it, but I’m sitting in my basement right now next to the laundry room machine and the dog crate right here, and yet I’m able to do my job, right? That’s not the case for a huge number of Americans, though, who have to physically go to their jobs and be exposed to the coronavirus in order to do it, so for those people this has been an economic depression and that’s why we’re seeing that K-shaped recovery. We are starting to turn the corner on it. The freefall in jobs that we saw in April has turned around. We saw more than 300,000 jobs created last month, but we’re still about 8-1/2 million jobs in the hole total since this pandemic began and that’s a long, long way to still dig out. Hopefully we can start to really begin to increase those numbers on a month to month basis and get a lot of people back to work once the vaccinations start to roll out here.

MS. DAVIS: Susan, obviously, our politics have changed; the country chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump to lead it out of the pandemic. I’m curious what you made of his speech last night and what you think it tells us about his leadership style going forward in this year.

MS. PAGE: You know, I think that Joe Biden can credit the COVID pandemic as the biggest single factor that contributed to President Trump’s failure to win a second term. It put Joe Biden in the – in the White House and it gave his presidency a mission. His presidency will be judged by more than – more than by any other single factor by how he does in handling this pandemic. And we saw such a different tone, such a different approach between the two presidents’ remarks that you showed at the beginning of this hour, between the kind of defiant tone that President Trump took, kind of denying that this was going to be the sort of dreadful experience it has been, and in contrast we had a very much more somber tone from President Biden as we’ve heard, mourning what we’ve lost. But in this speech, his first speech to the nation since becoming president, I think he did adopt a more optimistic, a more hopeful tone, saying we can get – we can see the light at the end of this tunnel, let’s keep together, let’s do what we need to do, by the fourth of July things are going to be much better.

MS. DAVIS: Well, this week President Biden signed a massive $1.9 trillion piece of legislation into law. There’s money in there to increase vaccinations, it’s going to send a new round of stimulus checks, and extends unemployment benefits. It also creates a tax credit for families with children, a revolutionary expansion of the social safety net similar to the New Deal. Here’s Senator Bernie Sanders on the impact of this bill.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) This is the most significant legislation for working people that has been passed in decades. We wrote a bill to address the crises facing working families and the middle class and low-income people.

MS. DAVIS: Toluse, Democrats see this economic stimulus package as so much more than just pandemic relief. What’s the big-picture goal here that Democrats are trying to accomplish with this new law?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: They want to show that they are a party that cares about the middle class, that cares about working families, as you heard Senator Sanders talk about. They realize that President Trump, the former president, was able to win over some voters, some low-income voters, some minority voters, by, you know, essentially trying to say that he was a populist, that he was going to use the government to help people – whether it was paying out money to farmers that were hurt by the trade war or, you know, signing his name on checks that went out to people during the pandemic.

And now Democrats want to be able to take that mantle and say that we are not going to be the party of the 1 percent or the party of only college-educated voters, but we are going to work to make sure that poor people, that working class Americans and middle class Americans have a social safety net, and that big government – if that is a term that can still be used – is something that they will completely embrace because the government can help people in a time of crisis, like we’re experiencing in this pandemic.

So they want to show that the Democratic Party is onboard with using the government to help people who are in need, poor people, low-income people, working class and middle class Americans are all looking to get something out of this bill. And the Democrats want to be able to take advantage of that and take credit for that, maybe in a way that was different than what happened during the last recession in 2009 when they did pass a relatively big stimulus package, but people did not necessarily give them the credit for it.

MS. DAVIS: Eamon, Republicans have criticized this bill. They say it’s simply too much and that the economy doesn’t need it, especially with mass distribution of vaccines and things turning around. Is there an economic criticism there? Is it possible to simulate the economy too much?

MR. JAVERS: It is possible to stimulate the economy too much – and their argument isn’t just that it’s too much, it’s that it’s not tailored enough to the right people. They’d like to see it a lot more targeted. They say it’s got a lot of left-wing wish list items that the Democrats would have wanted to put in any bill that passed, and they just happened to stuff this one full of those. So there are ideological complaints, as well as complaints about the overall size of it. But there is an argument among some economists that you’re starting to see now that this thing is so big that what you’re going to do is flood the economy with dollars. That’s going to create inflation. We haven’t seen inflation really take off for years now, but it can be a serious economic problem and there are some economists who say this thing is so big that it’s going to do exactly that.

The Biden team is gambling that that’s not what’s going to happen and we’re going to see a return here to a normalized economy and then maybe blow right past that. You’ve already got some economists out there on the other side of the argument saying: We are teeing ourselves up here for another roaring ’20s decade, like we saw back in the 20th century, which happened right after a pandemic as well. That because of all this stimulus and all of the pent up demand for travel and socializing and doing all the things that we all love to do, we’re going to see a huge boom as soon as somebody fires the starting gun and says we can get off to the races again.

MS. DAVIS: Susan, how much is at stake for Democrats with this bill? If we’re not all with our families on the fourth of July having small barbeques can the party and the president recover from that? They’ve set a pretty clear metric for success now.

MS. PAGE: I think that if the – if the White House and the Democrats do not deliver on the – now the expectation that things are going to look better in the summer and things will be back to some version of normal by the end of the year, they’ll pay a big price in next year’s midterm elections. The first midterms for parties when they win the White House often involves setbacks, and the Democrats have no margin in either the House or the Senate. If they suffer losses next year in the midterms they will likely lose control of each chamber.

But there’s a big payoff if they do deliver because those setbacks in midterm elections, they’re not inevitable. There are times that, like in 1998 and in 2002, when the party in power actually gained seats. And I think that a roaring ’20s, that would be a very happy scenario for Democrats to face as they – as they face the elections. Those elections are important because one reason this bill got so big? Some Democrats think this is the only train in town, that by using reconciliation it’s the only thing they’ll be able to get through this Congress. That’s one reason they loaded up. Bigger Democratic margins in the midterms? They could look at doing more.

MS. DAVIS: Yasmeen, to that end, one of the things inside this bill is the biggest expansion of the Affordable Care Act since it was passed nearly a decade ago. And one thing that struck me this week as I listened to the debate on Capitol Hill is that Republicans didn’t talk about that as much, especially as Obamacare had been such a focus of the party for the last 10 years. And I wonder with this legislation if maybe the political war over Obamacare maybe quietly died a slow death this week.

MS. ABUTALEB: I think it’s hard to ever rule it out completely, but I think you did see during the four years of the Trump administration this kind of tortured effort over and over to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act and all that did was make the law’s popularity increase. So I think, you know, they learned the hard way, especially when they lost the House in the 2018 midterms largely because the Democrats really took advantage of that health care message, and that they were going to strengthen Obamacare, you know, try to make health care more affordable for people – that that’s really a losing message. As soon as you are trying to take an entitlement away people don’t like that, and the law’s popularity reached record levels the more they tried to wage war against it.

MS. DAVIS: Toluse, the country really likes this bill – even a majority of Republicans right now say they really like this bill – yet not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted in favor of it. How do you explain that disconnect?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, we live in a very polarized society, and as Susan mentioned, there’s a long history of the party in power – the party that has the White House sort of losing out during the midterms. In the last two presidencies – during the Trump presidency, during the Obama presidency – we did see the opposition party – the party that was out of power really resist the new president, and they benefitted in the midterms. So it has become sort of a political strategy to resist whatever the new president supports, even if it is popular in the polls, to unify around opposing the new president.

That seems to be what the Republicans are doing this time around, essentially saying that we’re going to all rally around opposing Joe Biden, with the idea that that will bring us back into power in two years, and then we can have different ideological fights over what’s a good policy or bad policy. But for now, it seems like they’re all rallying around just opposing anything that Biden essentially tries to get into law because it has, you know, Biden’s support behind it. It seems to be a political strategy.

We live in a polarized society where those political strategies have been the norm for the past two presidencies, and now we’re just seeing Republicans get behind it once again. They are really trying to unify saying that if they can brand Joe Biden as a far-left socialist then maybe some of the gains that they made in the 2020 elections, they’ll be able to build on those and win back support in one or both chambers in 2022.

That’s really what this is all about, because they know that a lot of people are happy that the government is going to be sending them checks, that their child credit is going to be expanded, that they’re going to have access to vaccines, and all of the other things in this bill – opening schools and whatnot. But if they can try to brand this bill as something that is negative or that does not do enough to help the economy, then they can try to ride that into power in two years.

MS. DAVIS: Well, with COVID relief on its way to Americans, President Biden will now turn to his next legislative priorities. With the potential humanitarian crisis at the border, the president could focus on immigration reform, or infrastructure. Susan, what do we know about what’s next on President Biden’s agenda?

MS. PAGE: Well, we know the next big thing he would like to do is a huge infrastructure bill. They called this the American Relief Act. That would be the American Recovery Act. That would be, again, a huge price tag for projects like bridges, and roads, and other things that have been put off in the United States. That is also something that they might try to use this parliamentary device called reconciliation. There’s a lot of other things that the White House would like to do, though – climate change legislation, they also have things like the $15 an hour minimum wage that they are committed to pursue, so a big agenda.

Immigration, though, I think has the potential to be quite troublesome for this administration because they’re looking at this situation in the – at the border with some concern. And you ask about Republicans – the risk for Republicans in opposing this popular bill that – COVID relief bill. One thing they’ve done in response is talk more about the situation at the border in an effort to change the subject.

MS. DAVIS: Eamon, do you see any paths forward with bipartisanship, or do you think that Democrats are looking at sort of a lonely road ahead in terms of trying to get legislation passed?

MR. JAVERS: Yeah, look, I don’t see a lot of bipartisanship happening in Washington any time soon. And the reason is because Democrats look at this and they say, hey, wait a second, we’ve got the House, we’ve got the Senate, we’ve got the White House, we won this election big time; we should be able to pass our agenda. And Republicans say, you know, what’s in it with us to get onboard with a Biden initiative, and then he’s going to hammer us over the head with it in the next election cycle?

So I think you’re just totally polarized, totally divided, and with the Senate at a 50-50 split there really isn’t a lot of hope for a Biden agenda if you’re a Biden supporter beyond what they can get done through that process that Susan was talking about of budget reconciliation, where you can get down to a 50-vote margin, because everything else in the Senate these days takes 60 votes with the filibuster and they can’t get there, the Democrats can’t. So I hear a lot of liberals, particularly union people around town, really talking about this is the time – this is the time where we need to break the filibuster and move everything to a 50-vote threshold, or at least a lot more to a 50-vote threshold. So far, though, President Biden is not there, and I think that’s where you’re going to see a potential split between liberals in the Democratic Party who want to go, go, go now that they have the opportunity and the Biden administration, Senator Manchin, and some others who say, wait a second, we can’t just break the Senate like that.

MS. DAVIS: It certainly feels like the country is going to be hearing a lot about the filibuster in the year ahead. Toluse, we also heard some news this week from Republicans. Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri announced – he’s a member of leadership – announced that he would not seek reelection next year. This follows senators like Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, sort of traditional conservatives choosing to retire. What does this tell you about the ongoing struggle for identity in the Republican Party and which way it’s going?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, the party’s trying to decide whether it wants to be a party of traditional conservative ideas or a party of Trumpist populists, and it does seem like Trumpism is winning out in that fight because a lot of the traditional conservatives like Roy Blunt, like Rob Portman are starting to leave and make their exits, and people who are in favor of Trump-style policies, Trump-style approaches to politics seem to be on the ascendancy in Republican politics. They seem to be the ones that are, you know, raising money, that are getting support, that get the support of the former president, who continues to be the most popular figure in the party. So I do think that there is this reckoning, there is this civil war within the party in trying to decide what it wants to be, what kind of identity it wants to embrace, and right now with the former president continuing to weigh in on politics, not sort of having that honeymoon period after his presidency where he just sort of stays behind the scenes, it’s going to put more pressure on traditional conservatives to show that they are onboard with the Trump agenda, with the America first agenda that the president embraced during his four years, and if they don’t many of them are going to have to decide to leave office.

MS. DAVIS: Toluse, in the seconds we have left, any incentive for Republicans on the Hill to vote with Joe Biden?

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Well, their constituents may ask them to do that, but I don’t expect them to do that just because there’s a lot of pressure for them not to.

MS. DAVIS: All right, well, we’ll have to end a little early tonight so that you’ll have more time to go and support your local PBS station. I want to thank Yasmeen, Eamon, Toluse, and Susan for their time, and thank you for joining us. We’ll have more discussion on our Washington Week Extra. Catch it live at 8:30 on our website, on Facebook, and on YouTube.

I’m Susan Davis. Good night from Washington.

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